The Pirates of Penzance

I worried about this transfer of last year’s deserved’s Best Off-West End Production award from the pocket handkerchief of the Union in Southwark to the echoing music hall of Wilton’s in the East End.
The worries lasted about ten minutes, when I realised that director Sasha Regan, choreographer Lizzi Gee and designer Robyn Wilson had re-imagined their own work in a new venue, exploiting its architectural properties, the end stage and the raised platforms, to the full.

They do this without losing the essence of the original which, in the arrival of the all-male wandering maids climbing over rocky mountains like Isadora Duncan acolytes in white skirts and halters is as at once as brilliant and heretical as Matthew Bourne’s vision of Swan Lake.

Only in Alan Richardson’s slightly tinny, and tiny, falsetto Mabel does the revival compare less well with last year’s; Richardson is brilliant in his own way, but he’s not as touching, or as well-sustained a Mabel as was Adam Ellis. He squeaks a bit, too, and starts turning into Bonnie Langford.

The rest is pure joy. Russell Whitehead’s sure-footed, confidently sung Frederic is a splendidly vacuous hero, while Samuel J Holmes as his smitten middle-aged nurse finds a whole new area of sexual hurt and darkness in the role. Ricky Rojas is the new Pirate King, Spanish, muscular and lascivious to el tee.

It must have been the Penzance policemen’s beards on stalks that took the show into the policy of embracing the new venue, and one notable beneficiary is Fred Broom’s model Major General, who compensates for a slightly garbled articulation in his first number with red-nosed vaudevillian persona, a mixture of Gerald Campion and Fred Emney.

Chris Mundy performs heroically once more on the piano, and the spooky mock melodrama of the chase and garden scenes is both funny and atmospheric. It doesn’t matter that one or two voices are underpowered; the acting carries everyone through, hitting that perfect tone between silliness and sentimentality that this delightful operetta warrants.

– Michael Coveney

** DON’T MISS our Outing to THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE on 22 April 2010 – inc FREE programme & FREE drink at our post-show cast reception! – for only £15!! – click here to book now! **

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2009 and this production’s original run at the Union Theatre.

The subtitle of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 comic opera is “the slave of duty” and even the most straight-laced of productions will burst its stays of sentimentality in this most wonderfully melodic and funniest of musicals.

Ever since Kevin Kline led the rocked-up Pirates at the Public Theater in New York, there have been “new look” versions such as Chris Monks’ successful update and re-setting – in the world of Baywatch and Reservoir Dogs – at the Orange Tree a couple of years ago.

Sasha Regan’s pocket production is a total delight with an all-male cast that retains a “period” feel, stunningly well costumed by Sophie Mosberger in simple white linens and laces, bandannas and long johns, mercifully no wigs, and that dances like Isadora Duncan acolytes as the Major General’s daughters in Lizzi Gee’s brilliantly resourceful choreography.

As the pirates, led by Alan Winner’s handsome, furry-chested Pirate King, they strike hilarious, unthreatening poses that belie their true status as noblemen who have “gone wrong,” and as the coppers on the beat (“Tarantara, tarantara”) they sport their twirly moustaches on thin sticks.

As with other musicals at this address, the joy of the experience is having a great score delivered right in your lap from the naked unadorned voices of the actors, who are expertly accompanied on piano by Chris Mundy. And they don’t make the mistake, either, of hamming, or indeed camping, it up.

Well, hardly ever. This is a very funny show, but it’s not a bunch of queens in drag “having a go” at a musical. Everyone is superbly drilled and, apart from one Isadora who perhaps flashes his eyes a little too intensely, they are all alert to the irresistible flow of the music and their own character studies on the sidelines. It’s one of the best G&S productions I’ve ever seen.

No simpering, either, in the lead roles, where Russell Whitehead is a beautifully voiced tenor Frederic, Samuel J Holmes his adoring nurse Ruth only teetering on the edge of dowdiness, Fred Broom a splendidly rubicund Major General and Adam Ellis a slyly sweet-natured, doe-eyed and miraculously falsetto Mabel. A policeman’s lot may not be a happy one, but a Union audience’s most certainly is.