As 2020 limps its way to the end, it feels like I can count the number of live shows I have seen on the fingers of one hand. I was therefore really excited that for my final genuine, in-person on the stage in front of me live production of the year, I was returning to the heart of London’s West End, with an evening at the Palace Theatre and Sasha Regan’s All-Male The Pirates of Penzance.
The action takes place during the reign of Queen Victoria where, in a deserted Cornish cove, a group of pirates are saying goodbye to one of their own. Due to a mistake by his nurse Ruth (Leon Craig), young Frederick (Tom Senior) has spent the last 21 years apprenticed to the infamous Pirates of Penzance. Today is the last day of his apprenticeship and, despite the entreaties of his comrades in arms – The Pirate King (Oliver Savile), his Lieutenant, Samuel (Michael Burgen) and the others, Frederick has decided to leave piracy and pursue a life of respectability. Promising to do all in his power to destroy the pirates, Frederick takes his leave but not before giving them an insight into why they are not particularly successful at their trade. Frederick is a naive young man with no knowledge of women and becomes mightily interested when Mabel (Alan Richardson) and her sisters, Edith (Sam Kipling), Kate (Dominic Harbison), Connie (Lee Greenaway) and Isabel (Richard Russell Edwards) arrive in the cove and, believing themselves un-observed, decide to paddle. Frederick’s sense of honour and duty stop him witnessing the scene and he exposes himself to the ladies, who respond with alarm, except for Mabel who immediately falls in love with the handsome young man. The pirates return and decide to make wives of the girls, but they are stopped by the arrival of their papa, Major-General Stanley (David McKechnie) who manages to extricate his girls from the pirates’ grasp. Determined to destroy the pirate band, Frederick and the Major General enlist the help of the local constabulary under their Sergeant (Marc Akinfolarin). Can Frederick and Mabel be united in peace or will a birthday mix-up and hidden identities change everything?
Hard to believe that not only has this version of Pirates been around since 2009, but it is the first time I have seen it. But I am so glad I finally have. What an absolutely delightful show this turned out to be, easily dispelling any qualms I may have had about an all-male cast taking on some very demanding female roles. I think the real strength of the production is that director Sasha Regan does not emphasise the fact that everyone is male. It is there, and it adds a delightful comic element to the story for the audience, but it is never acknowledged by the cast so does not become part of the narrative. In fact, I almost forgot and, when I was chatting to my companion Michael about the show during the interval, I kept referring to Mabel and the other female characters as ‘she’.
Part of this is down to the great casting, particularly of Mabel. Not only does Alan Richardson have a fantastic female singing voice, but he is very convincing as a woman. And the match with Tom Senior as Frederick really works, particularly in their duets in the second act – “All is prepar’d; your gallant crew await you” and “Stay, Fred’ric, stay” – and the two make a really lovely couple both physically and vocally. Leon Craig as Ruth plays the role for laughs and gets a lot – especially with the Major General’s horse – and Oliver Savile is nicely swashbuckling as The Pirate King. Whilst there were a couple of problems with projection, especially when a character was not facing front, and I was a bit disappointed that Major General Stanley did not do the traditional fast reprise of the last verse of “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”, the singing, under Musical Director Richard Baker’s piano accompaniment, was first-rate throughout. A minimal set by Robyn Wilson-Owen left lots of space for Lizzie Gee’s choreography and this is a good point to mention the extremely hard-working ensemble (Jamie Chidzey, Thomas Duern, Joel Elferink, Matthew Facchino, Daniel Miles and Benjamin Vivian-Jones) who do a marvellous job as pirates, sisters and policemen. With little changes to costume, they inhabit each of their characters really well.
Overall, this production of The Pirates of Penzance is really charming, energetic, and exuberant and presents the words and music of Gilbert and Sullivan in a way which really does justice to the verbal humour and underlying commentary of the piece. I thoroughly enjoyed the production and left the theatre very happy that my last show of the year had been such good fun.
Review by Terry Eastham
Sasha Regan’s award-winning All-male Company are set to lift everyone’s spirits with a pre-Christmas treat in their new West End pirate’s cove. The swashbuckling pirates and their winsome lasses sail into the Palace Theatre with their inventive new take on W. S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan’s classic operetta THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Featuring a dazzling cast singing songs including: “I am a Pirate King”; “Oh, happy day, with joyous glee” and “A rollicking band of pirates we”, they are sure to raise the roof off the Palace Theatre!
Sasha Regan’s Pirates of Penzance
Shaftesbury Ave, London, W1D 5AY
Saturday 12 December 2020
Sunday 13 December 2020