The Pirates of Penzance, Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Can there be anyone, anywhere in Britain, who still doesn’t get the point of Gilbert and Sullivan?
As bought peerages and duck-houses give way to lobby-gate and the charade now masquerading as an election, Westminster conforms ever more closely to the G&S template. Sir Joseph Porter, who gets to run the navy by polishing door-knobs, and the pluralist grandee Pooh-Bah, who combines the offices of Archbishop, Lord Mayor, Paymaster General, and Lord Chief Justice, would both fit neatly with whichever Parliamentary gang gets in next. And what critic would now deny that, as music theatre, the Savoy operas are up there with Offenbach, but with added bite?
‘The Pirates of Penzance’ began life as a hit in New York in 1879. A century later it again became a hit there, thanks to an acclaimed production starring Linda Ronstadt in Central Park. Sasha Regan’s all-male version, which sold out at the Union Theatre last summer, is the latest take on this much-parodied masterpiece, and looks like selling out in its new home too. And where better to stage it than the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall?
The leaping pirates who invade the stage from all directions radiate beefy androgyny, with Ricky Rojas playing the Pirate King as Freddy Mercury with a Spanish lisp. Samuel J Holmes’s put-upon Ruth savours every word as she delivers the story of her fatal mistake - apprenticing her ward to a pirate, not a pilot - with Russell Whitehead imbuing his role as Frederic with clumsy sincerity. The lovable spirit of the old D’Oyly Carte troupe is everywhere present. The girls’ choruses are entrancingly done, with on-the-note falsetto and a believably male idea of femininity played straight.
When Mabel makes her entrance - played by the extraordinary Alan Richardson - the whole game is raised: how on earth does a man sing such accurate coloratura, so high, and with so little apparent effort? The drawback is the diminutive size of his voice: mercifully the accompaniment is only a piano, not an orchestra. Joe Maddison’s eye-rolling Sergeant of Police and his subordinates are gloriously goofy; the only disappointment is Fred Broom’s Bunterish Major General, who takes his patter songs too fast to be intelligible, and is not the caricature of crusty masculinity he ought to be.
Otherwise this evening is full of delights, thanks above all to the deft choreography. ‘With cat-like tread’ and ‘Sighing softly to the river’ are delivered with every nook and cranny of the darkened auditorium being exploited to the full; the revenge duet by Ruth and the Pirate King is wonderfully fast and furious, and at the denouement the house dissolves as it should. But this is one point where G&S invention has been outstripped by 21st century reality. ‘Peers will be peers, and youth will have its fling’ proclaims the General indulgently, before letting the errant nobles go back to their legislative duties. Not any more they won’t.
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