“grabs you by the cheeks, pulling them out into the widest smile“
With a backdrop of tall slender trees silhouetted against a mist of dusky blue light, sits a solitary tent. There is an Englishness that removes the location as far away as possible from the fictitious Japanese town of Titipu, further emphasized by the main characters being renamed as though they have all wandered in from a ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ story. There is no discernible reason for the resetting, but it is immediately clear that this is going to be lot of fun indeed. With lashings of laughs. Sasha Regan’s all-male “The Mikado”, which first toured in 2017, is a topsy-turvy romp that, despite having only one tent as the central scenic prop, is as camp as a whole row of them.
Kimonos and fans are replaced by baggy shorts and cricket bats in a world where Enid Blyton has collaborated with Morecambe and Wise. As inventive as it is confusing, at least it has done away with the cutesy but dated and potentially disrespectful Japanese monikers. Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s estranged son disguised as a wandering minstrel, is now Bertie Hugh. Central love interest Yum-Yum becomes Miss Plumb. Pooh-Bah is Albert Barr, Pish-Tush, Wilfred Lush… well, you get the drift. Except that the town’s name is left intact. Here, in Titipu (‘titter ye not’, boys and girls) it has been decreed by the Mikado (Lewis Kennedy) that all flirting is punishable by death. His son and heir, Bertie Hugh (Declan Egan) has fled to escape an arranged marriage to Kitty Shaw (Christopher Hewitt). Disguised as a wandering minstrel, Bertie returns to court his true love Miss Violet Plumb (Sam Kipling), only to discover she is betrothed to Mr Cocoa (David McKechnie) the High Executioner.
A fairly conventional basis for the farcical plot twists that unravel from it. Boy loves girl. Both are unhappily betrothed to others. Yet the fanciful and completely loopy laws of Titipu add spice to the conundrum. Unrequited love is one thing – being buried alive or beheaded is another thing entirely. It is highly enjoyable and highly silly in equal measure. Even if the 1950s scout-camp setting doesn’t necessarily have a point, the updating and adaptation of W. S. Gilbert’s libretto is ingeniously witty and clever. But what brings this production to vivid life is the performances from a superbly talented company. Led by Musical Director Anto Buckley on piano, Arthur Sullivan’s score is held in high respect and delivered beautifully by this all-male ensemble. They instinctively know the nuances and can marry the comedy with the emotional force required by the compositions.
The beauty of Buckley’s solo piano accompaniment allows the voices to shine; undiluted, unadulterated and unenhanced by technical wizardry. Sam Kipling’s solo – the gorgeous ‘The Sun, Whose Rays are All Ablaze” is a shimmering example, with not a false note to the falsetto. David McKechnie’s scheming, wide boy Mr Cocoa belies a purity of voice, as does Declan Egan’s bumbling Bertie. Christopher Hewitt’s jilted Kitty Shaw is rich in tone and comic flair, particularly during his solo, ‘Alone, and yet Alive’. When the company all comes together in harmony the effect is mesmerising: a gorgeous juxtaposition of virtuoso singing with the spirit of burlesque.
The book contains many of the stock paradoxes and Catch-22 quandaries inherent in Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. Regan’s setting is a little conflicting and confusing, but once you’ve accepted it, the joy of this fun-filled production reaches out and grabs you by the heart. It also grabs you by the cheeks, pulling them out into the widest smile. Sometimes it feels as though the cast are enjoying themselves a little too much. However, it always feels as though the audience are enjoying it more.
“in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End”
It is worth remembering what a lasting impact the nineteenth century impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, had on London’s theatreland. Having brought Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert together he built the Savoy Theatre in order to stage their works. Later, in an attempt to establish more serious opera, Carte built the Royal English Opera House; which is now known as the Palace Theatre. Although it staged Arthur Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe”, none of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas ever made it onto the grand stage.
Sasha Regan’s all male “Pirates of Penzance” has enjoyed success for a decade now in the UK and Australia, its journey briefly interrupted by the pandemic. But in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End, while many theatres are still sleeping, and seize the accolade of presenting the first Gilbert and Sullivan work to play in D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built theatre. And it deserves it.
The company don’t take the stage by storm. Instead, they use the weapons of wit, joy, irreverence, humour and harmony. It is perhaps one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most accessible comic operas, containing some of Sullivan’s most recognised music. Gilbert’s libretto has a simplicity and clarity which matches Regan’s staging. What will lodge in the memory for a long time is how the production transports you to a bygone era. The space is vast, even by West End standards, but the cast fill it completely with a stripped back set, one piano, a bunch of finely tuned singers, and not a single microphone between them. Nothing is forced either. Musical Director Richard Baker’s piano notes and arpeggios float across the auditorium carrying the voices with them to the far corners of the theatre. Lizzi Gee’s superb choreography may have been devised with smaller spaces in mind, but the physicality of the ensemble make no apologies and they pull it off.
Set during Queen Victoria’s reign on the coast of Cornwall, the story concerns the dutiful and soft-hearted Frederic who, having reached his twenty-first year has been released from his apprenticeship to a band of equally benevolent pirates. He promptly falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of the very model of a modern Major-General. Yet he soon learns that he was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so only has a birthday every four years. Which makes him only five years old, meaning he has another sixty years to serve. What ensues is a gorgeous romp through the themes of courage, duty and honour.
Alan Richardson, as Mabel, stuns us with his soaring falsetto. But it is unfair to single him out, the entire ensemble is pitch perfect, from bass through to soprano. It is credit to the cast that at no point does it really occur to us that we are watching men dressed as women. There is plenty of chest and facial hair on view, but such are the nuances, mannerisms and finesse of the cast, we are convinced. This is not high camp; it is not drag; it is character acting at its finest. Tom Senior’s Frederic is just as convincing, and you believe in the chemistry between the actors. Leon Craig’s hapless nurse, Ruth, is a master of comedy, vying for the laughs with David McKechnie’s Major-General. The accolades, though, belong to the entire team and given space they would all receive a special mention.
The continued success of the all-male “Pirates of Penzance” is undoubtedly on dry land; and this stunning production feels completely at home in the West End. Yes, maybe it might not have made it there in normal times (though I like to think it would), but we can certainly hoist the flag to celebrate one of the most delightful, innovative, funny and musically rich interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan.