Pirates of Penzance is one of those pieces that tend to both get stuck in your head after you see it and also get revived all the time, so it’s hard to both a) get it out of your head when you could see it so often, and b) find a way to make a wonderful, yet kind of tired show new again.
Well, Sasha Regan found the way.
Her UK import production of Pirates of Penzance uses such a simple, farcical method (an all-male cast) that shouldn’t, on paper, make things more original than just the use of a gimmick this time around – but it really does, and it’s surprising.
The opening scenes are pleasing, passably fun, particularly the entire story of a life that somehow Joseph Houston’s Ruth manages to impart (her pathos is best represented in one small but important moment at the end of Act One; I’d never cared so much for Ruth before).
For a moment, it’s not that different to other productions, though it’s well-acted, well-sung, and has a good sense of its own in-book humour.
However, when Mabel (Alan Richardson) and her sisters merrily descend upon the stage from the audience to hopefully paddle in the pirate’s cove, the game changes. It changes right around the moment you hear one sister call to another something like the one that caught my ear: “Edith! I caught a frog!” and the girlish excitement begins.
Under Regan and choreographer Lizzi Gee’s eye, these men-playing-women avoid being a sight gag. The characterisation is good; it’s sympathetic, it’s funny, it’s knowing – very knowing. Mabel is the undisputed star of the show, unlike The Pirate King, as
has been the case with most recent mainstage Pirates productions. (An affable n’er-do-well of a Pirate King, thanks to a strong performance by Nic Gibney).
[pull_left]Australian Joel Elferink’s arch, aggressive sister is one of the best ensemble comic standouts I’ve seen this year)[/pull_left]
The sisters are lively, and that strong characterisation shows most in their individuality. There’s no blanket ‘women are funny creatures’ character portrayal. Each sister is different and funny because of their personality, not because of their gender. (Australian Joel Elferink’s arch, aggressive sister is one of the best ensemble comic standouts I’ve seen this year). And yes, they’re men playing women and it’s camp, and it’s silly, but it’s never demeaning.
It’s actually, when you look at it, quite the feminist adaptation of an old and often sexist trope.
The vocals in this show are nothing short of incredible. None of the music has been transposed for men’s vocals (Richardson) sings a high D Flat and there is no evidence of strain. The Act I Finale and it’s a capella section is hauntingly beautiful; a moment of sincerity in a whip-smart context-drawn comedy. There’s no orchestra, just musical supervisor Michael England at the piano, but it really works.
The sincerity resurfaces in the second act, too, because in this production the love story between Mabel and Frederick (Matthew Gent) feels alive, real, and very warm. It’s that very human story that’s the star of the show, and the sense of duty that pervades most often is the sense of duty bound with love, not bound with honour.
It was exciting. The opening night audience was excited to be there and familiar with the show, and it showed: an audience that laughs the line before a clever play on words (Orphan/Often) is an audience that knows their Pirates of Penzance. And the audience, unanimously, judging by the thunderous applause at the end of the show, accepted this silly, sincere, lovely production without hesitation. The one gag that wasn’t played for straight laughs was the most successful one of all.
Do see this. It’s the farthest thing possible from a case of “seeing it once and therefore seeing it all” that you could ever possibly find. This is a completely delightful night at the theatre. Everyone will enjoy it – and probably more than they ever could have expected.