Of all Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, Pirates of Penzance is probably the best known and one of their most popular, having been a hit since it first opened in New York in December 1879. Since then, it has been interpreted and re-interpreted – and Sasha Regan ‘s award-winning production is one of the very best. The “men playing women” trope has, of course, been around for many centuries, in Shakespeare and in panto. It depends on the talent of the actors to make the conceit work. And work it does, the all-male cast adding an additional layer of whimsy to what is already a marvellously funny operetta.
The story hinges on its subtitle “The Slave Of Duty”. After a miscommunication leads young Frederic to be indentured to the dastardly Pirates of Penzance, he delights in his freedom from the gang on his 21st birthday. When it later seems he may not be free of them after all, he struggles with his desire to be true to what he sees as his duty. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with Mabel, one of the many (many, many) daughters of Major-General Stanley, but as a pirate, he would not be allowed to marry her. It’s not all fun and frolics though. Gilbert and Sullivan inject a note of pathos with Ruth, Frederic’s maid, played to perfection by Leon Craig, who genuinely adores Frederic but he cruelly rejects her.
This is a show chock-full of well-known songs, including “When A Felon’s Not Engaged in His Employment”, “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General”, and “Poor Wand’ring One”, with the talented cast effortlessly performing the tongue-twisting lyrics. General Stanley’s daughters’ musical range as they “climb over rocky mountains” is eye-watering. In particular, Alan Richardson’s Mabel has an wonderful falsetto voice that pairs beautifully with Frederic’s (Tom Senior) tenor. The band of pirates, athletically led by Oliver Savile as the Pirate King, are suitably threatening in that over-drawn comic-book way and are choreographed to great effect by Lizzi Gee. There’s a bit of hilarious physical business thrown in to acknowledge our present virus predicament, a light-touch topical nod towards the fourth wall that is often included in G&S productions.
The set has been kept sparse by designer, Robyn Wilson-Owen, with just a few crates and some greenery forming the pirate ship, the rocky escarpment where Frederic meets General Stanley’s daughters, and later the Major-General’s home. It’s enough, as the joy is all in the songs and the performances and doesn’t need complicated set design.
The only minor downside of the show being on stream is the atmospheric lighting in a couple of scenes. These scenes must have looked marvellous in the Palace Theatre in London, but are a little too dark on the screen. Fortunately, the music and cast carry the story through the gloom.
Superbly accompanied on piano by Musical Director, Richard Baker, the entire cast of performers is uniformly glorious. This show is a joyous interpretation that fizzes with innovation, wit and delight. Exactly what is needed right now. Online until 3rd January 2021 https://www.stream.theatre/season/16
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 28th December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★