Julian Eaves reviews Sasha Regan’s All-male Pirates Of Penzance at Wilton’s Music Hall
The Pirates of Penzance
Wilton’s Music Hall
26th February 2019
Ten years on after its launch at The Union Theatre in Southwark – a very much smaller venue than that it now graces – this production launched Sasha Regan’s ground-breaking series of all-male G&S stagings, that has given us ‘HMS Pinafore‘ and ‘Iolanthe‘ in versions that have a more or less greater grip on the contemporary world. Of all the three, this seems to have the most ‘traditional’ look, with designs by Robyn Wilson-Owen providing us a muslin-heavy twist on period costume, while Lizzie Gee’s bang up-to-date choreography exults in all the power and energy that can be drawn from a crack team of young men. The fact that these boys can also sing in their tenor, baritone or bass registers as well as in a variety of falsetto ranges and do all that movement is the production’s great strength, one which enables you to overlook the sparseness of the decor and the empty pit. Ben Bull lights it simply but sensitively.
But it is the company – and the venue – that are the stars here. From the initial surging entrance of the male ensemble through the auditorium, taking command of the stage and dazzling us with their vocal clarity – each Gilbertian syllable enunciated with meticulous care (thank you, MD Richard Baker, efficiently accompanying the action on piano), through the equally flirtatious appearance of the effetely mincing ‘ladies’ (cue for much groan-worthy laughter from a mainly middle-to-senior-aged audience, doubtless with attitudes to match), and via the expertly delivered sequence of numbers right up to the final, rather downbeat conclusion, what we get here is a riot of precision detail in performance to delight anyone who loves a great show to be performed with gusto and enormous care.
Tom Senior cuts a romantically sturdy figure as Frederic (although, in an uncharacteristic mistake, Regan opts to play his ‘O is there not one maiden breast’ for laughs – a move which ultimately undermines the sentimental force of the conclusion); however, his is an heroic performance in which he makes the most of an attractive voice, and he certainly looks the part. By contrast, Tom Bales’ Mabel is over-stretched by the high-lying tessitura and produces an often thin and pallid sound. How unlike Alan Richardson’s phenomenally accomplished Ruth; this actor, we should also note, was the first Mabel in this production a decade ago, and comparisons with his successor rarely work in Bales’ favour.
Elsewhere, David McKechnie’s Major-General is a lightning-tongued champion of some of G&S’s most treacherous writing, winning us over with his apparently effortless mastery of its challenges. Equally so, James Thackeray’s Pirate King convinces, in spite of seeming just possibly a little bit too young for the role. And, a quartet of female roles – Dominic Harbison’s Isabel, Connor Hughes’ Kate, Sam Kipling’s Edith and Richard Russell Edwards’ Connie – reminds us that we are – really – watching a show that is every bit about the feminine as it is about anything else. Regan, to her credit, manages to dodge a lot of genre pitfalls and gives them a modernity and dignity that is not always present in conventional presentations of this opera. And there is also the more arrestingly comic role of Benjamin Vivian-Jones’ Samuel. So, a lot of good things to celebrate there.
The second act gives us a newcomer to the squad, Duncan Sandilands’ Sergeant of Police, with which he has a great deal of fun – as does the ever versatile chorus, now becoming policemen. As ever, Gee’s marvellously charming and fluid choreography has them creating lovely shapes as they support him, with abundant wit and good-humour. It’s a welcome event after the interval, because – as experienced audiences are only too well aware – the best meat in G&S is sometimes to be found beforehand. With less to go on here, Regan doesn’t hang about and makes a fairly rapid dash for the finishing line, leaving us with just a hint of bitter-sweet regret to add piquancy to the conclusion of an otherwise less engaging act.
So, ten years on, the show is in terrific shape, although with a few caveats. The good stuff is really great, and there’s enough of it to merit a couple of hours of your time. The cast have fun, and so will you.
Until 16 March 2019