My mum always insisted I was named after Ruth in the Bible, but ever since seeing my dad in an amateur production of Pirates of Penzance at Cheadle near Stoke-on-Trent I’ve suspected something different. They were nuts for Gilbert and Sullivan and that would have been a classic joke by my late father. I guess many theatre goers like me have seen many amateur G&S operettas, given their popularity, so they are in for a treat with Sasha Regan’s all-male production which had its tour press night at ATG’s beautiful Richmond Theatre, shortly to host the sell-out To Kill A Mockingbird.
Even the amateur Pirates I’ve seen have usually managed to get an orchestra together, but the ebullient skill of MD David Griffiths more than made up for him being a one-man pianist. And the sheer joy and comedy of this flawless script and score, combined with Lizzi Gee’s exquisitely-timed choreography, meant this show was a sheer joy, giving two-plus hours of effortless laughter, a perfect family show.
Stand-out performances were given by Samuel Nunn as Frederic, Alex Weatherhill as the unfortunate Ruth, James Waud as Sergeant of Police and Miles Western as the scarlet hunting jacketed Major General. Among the most memorable of all though was Alan Richardson as Mabel, with his beautiful falsetto making it almost possible to forget it was a man singing. Neil Moors was also a stylish, Les Mis-style Pirate King, a beacon of unrepentant masculinity amid the flounces and frills.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, its Victorian origins, some of the jokes were surprisingly current. Piracy, we were told, was a “relatively honest” profession, at least compared with “respectability”. Somehow, “matrimonified” seemed to describe this state perfectly as Frederic thinks he’s doing the right thing by lauding the delights of “plain” women. The taut, muscled young men in their white dresses and singing with their falsettos had a ghostly exoticism especially in the lovely candle light of much of the second act. When the “daughters” sang with the pirates, it really did sound like a mixed chorus.
The plot will be familiar to many readers. Frederic is apprenticed by mistake to a band of pirates. His father had intended him to be apprenticed to a pilot but Ruth, his nursemaid, misheard. The underlying joke is that it is his sense of duty that keeps him attached to this life of crime, even though they are pretty useless pirates and release everyone who claims to be an orphan. Under his indentures, Frederic must until he is 21 to seek release. Until this point, Ruth was the only woman he had seen and she even makes a play for him. He suspects she might not be beautiful and manages to escape her clutches but that is not the only peril awaiting to entrap this young man. When he realises he was born on Feb 29 in a leap year and therefore must remain apprenticed another 63 years, he decides to do his duty. Mabel, the plainest of the Major General’s daughters, by now in love with him, pledges to wait.
It is difficult to go wrong with the humour of G&S. A show well done like this one, the all-male cast giving a whole extra layer of comic potential to be mined, is perfection. No foot, arm, finger or thumb is out of place. Every costumed accessory plays its part, adding to the femininity of the role or the masculinity of the player. Every single moment has a joke, or something deeper, to think about as well as the music to listen to and the visuals to watch. Although it’s a myth that the Victorians covered the curves on their table legs for reasons of modesty, if they had, they would have used white skirts like those worn by these men.
There are underlying serious moments as well. It was not that long ago that two men kissing on stage would have prompted controversy. Society has changed so radically, and so much for the better, to permit a show such as this to live and thrive, theatre at its best, in all its glorious comedy and joy.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
First seen at the Union Theatre in 2009, Sasha Regan’s acclaimed all-male production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance will return for its first UK Tour, opening at Richmond Theatre on Wednesday 15th April 2015, with a press night on Thursday 16th April 2015.
A classic musical comedy of mistaken identity, The Pirates of Penzance follows young Frederic, a child apprenticed to a band of tender-hearted, orphaned pirates exploring the coastline in search of treasure and romance. It first opened in 1879 and was an immediate triumph for Gilbert and Sullivan, remaining to this day their most popular and successful collaboration. Now, Sasha Regan’s critically acclaimed all-male production, a fresh and exquisitely funny re-imagining of this much-loved classic, returns to set sail across the UK.
The Pirates of Penzance