Sasha Regan's All Male The Pirates of Penzance
16 April 2015
These days people don't blink (much anyway) about all male or all female casts of Shakespeare productions and, really, why should they? Gender blind casting is fine if it doesn't get in the way of the text or, better, if its use enhances the text or provides the ability for a new directorial vision. Otherwise, it's just a gimmick, and although Sondheim teaches us in Gypsy that “you've gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get applause”, he is there discussing the specific art of Burlesque performance, and not theatre, or even musical theatre, in general.
Sasha Regan understands this, as seems clear from her series of all-male Gilbert and Sullivan revivals which, to date, include The Pirates Of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, Iolanthe and Patience. Her vision for these productions has been simple but sure: cast attractive young men with good vocal and dramatic skills and let a new angle to the gentle humour and convivial geniality emerge.
Critically, Regan has never used the all-male casting to try to make political points, change the fundamental satire inherent in the pieces or to seek specifically to appeal to a gay agenda. On the contrary, Regan has always ensured that her productions featured men playing female roles, not men in drag acts or queer subculture routines.
The key is truthfulness: the men play the female roles as truthfully as they can, in the context of the show, and by doing so, unlock different energies and synergies. Just as audiences roared at Mark Rylance's Olivia in Twelfth Night, not because he was a man playing a woman, but because his so doing simply provided a different palette of choices, so too, in Regan's productions, they roar at the antics as the men bring fresh perspective to some of Gilbert and Sullivan's most loved and enduring characters and situations.
In some of the later productions, notably Iolanthe, Regan provided a conceit to justify why there were men playing female roles. That never seemed necessary. Either the concept and casting worked, or it didn't. Second guessing the artistic vision seemed an unusual and unnecessary vote of no self confidence.
The original all-male production in the series, The Pirates Of Penzance, is now being revived for a UK tour and opened last evening in Richmond. This production has had the most successful theatrical life, including an Australian tour, and the revival clearly shows you why that has been the case.
Together with choreographer Lizzie Gee, Regan establishes a specific physical style and look for the production which shapes it superbly and unlocks its many virtues. The large, very fit, very handsome, ensemble first appear as energetic, manly pirates, virtually all of whom are showing off impressive torsos one way or another: they seem well up for it, whether the “it” be a rough, bruising fight or having their way with a willing maiden.
Then, when Frederic is alone and spies Major General Stanley's daughters frolicking, most of the ensemble return, now as vibrant Victorian young ladies, all prim, proper, pert and pretty, ready for eccentric buttoned-up fun. Same lads, entirely different characters.
Finally, in the second Act, the ensemble return in their third guise: compellingly lame and Monty Pythonesque Cornish policeman, complete with quivering demeanours and ludicrous moustaches (on canes!). Their clunky, funky routine for When The Foeman Bears His Steel is utterly hilarious.
When all three groups are assembled with the core principals for the denouement, the achievement of the hard working ensemble is clear. No Gilbert and Sullivan work can function effectively without a cracking chorus and that is precisely what Regan has established here. Particular standout performances come from Joel Elferink (his matronly, purse-lipped slap of Dale Page’s hysterical Kate, which resulted in spectacles flying , was very funny indeed), Matt Jolly and William Whelton.
Robyn Wilson’s costumes are inspired, making quite something from very little. The use of white and cream as the essential colours of the production produces a consistent overall sepia effect, which allows the colourful characters to emerge more brightly. The ribbon around the neck for the young maidens was wonderfully inspired. The minimalist set is also very clever, reinforcing the notion of imagination being at the heart of the piece.
The biggest issue with using all men to play Gilbert and Sullivan lies in the potential loss of the female vocal lines form the texture of the music. Sullivan wrote glorious, free melodies for sopranos and harmonies of complexity and interest. Musical Director, David Griffiths, ensures that there is little diminution in quality here, both by his near flawless piano accompaniment and his ear for the blending of the male voices, in whatever register.
Curiously, it is the loss of the tenor line which is felt most keenly. For a show full of men, there is not that strong a sense of the manly tenor or very high baritone about the contrapuntal or complex harmony pieces. The soprano and alto lines are well served as well as the bass and bass-baritone lines; but the tenor line seems often curiously absent.
Alun Richardson is in remarkably good voice as Mabel. Sure, he takes the odd alternate lower note, but by and large, the coloratura thrill of the role is well captured and he brings great expression and warmth in his tone. Poor Wandering One is quite vivacious and sprightly, better sung here by Richardson than is often the case in traditional productions. His work in Stay Frederic Stay is especially good.
Richard Edwards makes an impeccable Hebe. His singing is assured and golden in mezzo tone and warmth; it is sometimes hard to remember that he is a man, so completely immersed is he in the bare-shouldered-corseted world of petticoats, lace and long eyelashes which Hebe inhabits and embodies. Edwards does not put a foot wrong all evening.
There is good work, too, from Chris Theo-Cook (Isabelle – I seem to recall that Gilbert called her Isabel, but the notion of the French touches was fun) and Ben Irish (Edith), both sisters to Kate and Mabel. But it is the Charles Hawtrey grand-daughter performance from Dale Page (Kate) which strikes one as wholly original and which bursts with pleasure unexpectedly throughout. All are very committed to their roles, but Page’s wide-eyed girliness is particularly well thought through. There is a real sense of sisterhood about the Stanley daughters which is very welcome.
A little of the point of Ruth is lost in an all-male version, but Alex Weatherhill is convincing and heartily salty as the dim older woman who so foully mistreated her charge in the matter of his apprenticeship. He allows himself to be the butt of visual jokes and proves to be a good sport. He sings the part well enough, although it seems too low for him occasionally.
Neil Moors is suitably louche and swashbuckling as the virile Pirate King, and there was a nice sense of violent possibility about him. His work with Michael Burgen’s Samuel was particularly good. Both acquitted themselves well vocally, although both could do with supporting their lower registers more thoroughly.
As the Mr Beanish Sergeant of Police, James Waud was a delicious treat. All wide eyes, clumsy steps and shuddering bravery, Waud delivered both of his big numbers very well and added a real jolt of humour to proceedings in Act Two.
Making your professional debut as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance is not for the faint hearted: it is a very difficult sing, requiring sustained and clarion clear high notes and bright, legato singing. Additionally, he is one of Sullivan’s wettest leading men, so it is difficult to imbue him with especial interest. Samuel Nunn gives it a good shot, but his voice is not really equal to the very high demands of the music. It is not that he sings badly; it is more that he is slightly uncomfortable with the score and that discomfort sits oddly given the fluency shown by, particularly, Richardson against whom Nunn must sing most often. Familiarity with the testing nature of the score through performances will no doubt help Nunn settle in because he clearly has the right sort voice.
The greatest disappointment of the evening, however, came with one of the most famous of Gilbert and Sullivan characters: Major General Stanley. He has one of the trickiest patter songs in history, but it was delivered by Miles Western at such a dreary trot that it lost all of its singular punch and purpose. The Major General needs to be a quirky burst of volcanic energy – a complete surprise from the antics of the Pirates amorously pursuing his daughters. Western does provide a contrast, but it is deflating rather than inspirational. It’s a surprising disappointment given the fresh attack evident in other performances.
Still there is so much inventiveness and clever work on display that it is a hard heart indeed that would not find a great deal to enjoy here. Regan’s vision is worth seeing.