Julian Eaves reviews Sasha Regan’s All Male Pirates of Penzance recorded at London’s Palace Theatre and streamed online.
Sasha Regan’s all-male The Pirates of Penzance
Filmed at Palace Theatre, London and Streamed Online
Beginning with a handsomely professional and glossy ‘opening credits sequence, filmed to fit the piano-only accompaniment of the show, this online transfer of a performance at The Palace Theatre, London, is a welcome chance to spread the word about Sasha Regan’s very successful re-franchising of G&S for the 21st century. A 2019 film having been recently streamed, the work can still be seen in that form, by independent purchase.
The great advantage of this form of presentation is that it gets you right into W S Gilbert’s clever and ingenious text, especially his brilliantly written lyrics; these are aspects of the Savoy Operas that regularly get completely lost in the efforts singers have to make to project – without microphones – Sullivan’s not undemanding vocal parts. The camerawork is alive to each moment and knows when to home in on a joke, or punchline, or any of the fine detail provided in the performances of this young and appealing cast.
Twelve years on after its premiere at The Union Theatre in Southwark – a very much smaller venue than that which 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 with 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 Regan opts to play his, ‘O, is there not one maiden breast’ for laughs; a wise move, since Senior hasn’t got the heroic chops to float the melody with all the headnotes and legato it really begs for: yet, this trick ultimately undermines the sentimental force of the conclusion; however, his is an amiable performance in which he makes the most of an attractive if still rather young sounding voice, and he certainly looks the part. By contrast, there is sparkly, chromium shine in Alan Richardson’s Mabel, mostly comfortably soaring through the high-lying tessitura and producing a light and cheerful sound. Meanwhile, Leon Craig’s bossy Ruth is fun.
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, Oliver Savile’s Pirate King convinces, in spite of seeming just possibly a little bit too young for the role: but we forget just how young sailors tended to be – often with careers as brief as their lives. And, a quartet of female roles – Lee Greenaway’s Connie, Dominic Harbison’s Kate, Sam Kipling’s Edith and Richard Russell Edward’s Isabel – 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 modernity and dignity that is not always present in conventional presentations of this opera. And there is also the more arrestingly comic role of Michael Burgen’s characteristically expertly delivered Samuel. So, a lot of good things to celebrate there.
The second act gives us Mark Akinfolarin’s 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, twelve 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 has fun, and so will you.