G&S is certainly something of an acquired taste. The light music is often an overly simple Mozart-inspired affair; the plotlines are bizarre; the traditional British humour hasn’t aged well; and many productions, no matter how slick, fail to rise above the level of am-dram. Embrace that silliness, though, and there is undoubtedly some fun to be had – even if the duo’s operettas seem increasingly archaic in today’s theatrical world.
Sasha Regan’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, first performed at the Union Theatre in 2009, embraces the silliness – with an all-male cast. Watching men prance around the stage in dresses with exaggerated and stereotypically girlish mannerisms is initially jarring, yet the show soon settles into its stride. Sure, it turns something that’s already a marmite show into an even more divisive production, but this Pirates is camp as Christmas and frequently hilarious.
Silliness aside, one worry is that of vocal balance, but it’s testament to the cast that this is never an issue. Even with a full cast singing in harmony, the “female” lines can still be heard clearly. Chris Theo-Cook (Isabelle), Ben Irish (Edith), Richard Edwards (Hebe) and Dale Page (Kate) make for an amusing quartet of ladies performing with tongue firmly in cheek, but Alan Richardson’s Mabel is the real standout performance, with a powerful falsetto and surprising vocal dexterity in the ornamental sections that equals many a soprano. Alex Weatherhill also amuses as Ruth, the pirates’ busty maid, with effortless comic timing. Elsewhere, Neil Moors plays a strapping Pirate King and Miles Western copes well with the vocal demands of the famous “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”, whilst Samuel Nunn croons his way through the role of Frederic.
As with Sullivan’s score, this production is simple yet effective. This works both ways. At times, Regan’s direction and staging feels a little stilted and uninspired, yet this is mostly overshadowed by some creative effects – subtly coloured lighting, candlelight, and the use of cloths and other props – that makes surprisingly atmospheric use of minimal set and predominantly white costumes. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is also slick and adds plenty of humour, from the (not so) manly pirates, to the giggling ladies and the amusing marching of the policemen complete with oversized moustaches.
There are a few issues with the operetta itself – the nonsensical plot and denouement, and a lack of tunes in the second half. Yet look past these shortcomings (and the frilly dresses) and there’s an entertaining show here, with a talented cast, some inventive comic moments and a gimmick that doesn’t overshadow the typical G&S charm that’s in abundance.
Watch: The Pirates of Penzance is on tour around the country until the end of June.