The Pirates of Penzance (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, May 30th)
An all-male version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance sails into Brighton not so much with catlike tread but with a lion’s roar.
The pirates are dashingly hunky and even the maidens have hairy chests in this re-imagined version that dares to be creative and avoids descending too far into campness, while retaining the full impact of Gilbert and Sullivan’s wit, wisdom and supreme musicality.
Sasha Regan’s simple and saucy take on the famous operetta started life at the ground-breaking Union Theatre in London and it’s hard not to feel that a more intimate style for the production would be preferred to the larger scale demanded by a national tour.
But this is a quibble. At least the provinces (and indeed other countries) are getting the chance to see the show which, if it doesn’t tick absolutely every box, does more than enough to provide an entertaining evening with some great performances, plenty of laughs, and a very great deal to admire.
Set and costumes are pared down, with only the Major General’s red hunting tunic providing any colourful break from cream and ivory pirate’s outfits and young ladies’ dresses. There is also but a single piano, though the advantage to this is the lyrics generally come across clearly and there is a chance to appreciate the wonderful musical director David Griffiths, whose playing is masterly.
Some of the performances could do with being just a little “bigger” but it’s almost impossible to be grumpy when the gentlemen of the cast are clearly having such a great time treating G&S with due respect and delighting an appreciative audience in the process.
Sasha Regan deliberately avoids giving reasons for the all-male cast and there are notably no hidden attempts to make political or social comments (other than what’s in the lyrics already) or to specifically appeal to a gay audience. But the mind still wants to ask “why?” and I found myself thinking of the production as something being staged by a group of college students stranded somewhere with no other way to entertain themselves (perhaps even a Lord of the Flies before things turned nasty!). Yet the raison d’etre of the piece is simply to entertain and a search for meaning is futile and distracting.
Alex Weatherhill’s lovelorn pirate maid Ruth is an instant hit, injecting bucketloads of comedy into her early song, which explains how young Frederic became apprenticed to a band of pirates rather than as a pilot. Plenty of bravado swagger too from Neil Moors’ Pirate King, with good looks, a great voice and fine comic timing.
The giggling daughters of Major General Stanley were a huge hit and each of the boys playing the roles managed to find individual characteristics to play with nicely. Liam Lakin was particularly noteworthy understudying the bespectacled Kate but top marks must also go to Richard Russell Edwards, Ben Irish, and Chris Theo Cook for somehow managing to be both demure and butch. The versatility of all the performers must also be commended as many of those who had played pirates only minutes earlier tripped onto the stage in white dresses, their deep tenor/baritones turning to lighter soprano/contralto with apparent ease.
As the romantic leads, Samuel Nunn’s Fredric tried to inject some depth into what is traditionally a wimpy role, and his acting was strong as he makes his professional debut in the show. As his beloved Mabel Alan Richardson gave a falsetto beauty to the solos.
The two main comic roles are the Major General, played with some restraint by Miles Western, whose “Modern Major General” is occasionally more padding than patter (but those tongue twisters are tough!) and James Waud’s deadpan Sergeant of Police – “When the foeman bares his steel” and “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment” were highlights of musical comedy, helped considerably by Lizzi Gee’s high standard of choregraphy.
It’s possible that you need to know your G&S to appreciate fully the imaginative vision behind this production, but you certainly won’t come out giving it the old heave-ho, me hearties!