The Pirates of Penzance [Union Theatre]

Gilbert & Sullivan
The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty – Comic Opera in Two Acts; libretto by W. S. Gilbert with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Major-General Stanley – Fred Broom
The Pirate King – Alan Winner
Ruth – Samuel J. Holmes
Samuel, his Lieutenant – Michael Burgen
Frederic, the Pirate Apprentice – Russell Whitehead
Mabel – Adam Ellis
Isabel – Adam Lewis Ford
Kate – Dieter Thomas
Edith – Stewart Charlesworth
Constance – Lee Greenaway
Sergeant of Police – Benjamin James

Ensemble – Daniel Maguire, Adam Black, Lewis Barnshaw, Frank Simms, Raymond Tait & Brandon Whittle

Chris Mundy – Musical Director & Pianoforte

Sasha Regan – Director
Lizzi Gee – Choreographer
Robyn Wilson-Owen – Designer
Sophie Mosberger – Costume Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 15 July, 2009
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

First things first: this is no ordinary G & S production, this is what Gilbert & Sullivan themselves might have called a travesty of “The Pirates of Penzance”, an all-male production in which the ladies are confined to working backstage, and that includes director Sasha Regan. The Union has already staged “HMS Pinafore” and “The Mikado” by an all-male company and they were successful. Far from ruining the charm of the music and the wit of the libretto, putting the cast en travesti adds an extra layer of humour and it’s not camp humour either.

This is no common or garden drag-show but an intelligent and highly entertaining way of presenting what is after all mere frivolities. Most Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are strong enough to withstand any sort of treatment, even if fanatical purists tend to prefer the originals set in aspic. When American director Joseph Papp staged “Pirates” in Central Park, New York, in 1981, some complained of the heated-up tempos, the pillaging of songs from other G & S sources, and the use of pop singers in the cast – but it still became a successful Broadway musical and subsequently played Drury Lane. It is a piece, in one form or another, which will survive.

The titular heroes are the oddest bunch of buccaneers, with Frederic being the oddest; he was never cut out to be a pirate. His nursery-maid Ruth was told to have Frederic apprenticed to a ‘pilot’ but she misheard and so her charge ended up at sea. Now he has reached the age of 21, however, he wants to quit his apprenticeship and seek his fortune elsewhere. Having only ever seen one woman, namely Ruth (47 and no beauty), he is surprised when the daughters of Major-General Stanley arrive and, because they are young and pretty, he decides he must marry one of these lovelies. Young Mabel takes pity on him and offers to be his bride. However, it is revealed that Frederic was born in a leap year on 29 February, making him just five-years-old and therefore is still apprenticed to the pirates. Taking a shine to Mabel, Frederic promises to give up piracy. When his confreres arrive, they too fall for the Major-General’s daughters but he refuses to have a bunch of privateers as sons-in-law. Enter the police force with cat-like tread to round up the pirates.

What adds to the fun in this production is that the same chorus plays the pirates, daughters and policemen. As pirates and policemen the singers are as credibly butch, but as the Major-General’s offspring they are simpering and fey but just as believable as young ladies.

As Mabel, Adam Ellis brings a very endearing sweetness to the role as well as an extraordinary voice that seems to be a pure high soprano that doesn’t even sound falsetto. His version of ‘Poor Wand’ring One’ is a delight. Fred Broom makes a finely comic blusterer of the very model of a modern Major-General Stanley, Russell Whitehead turns the determinedly naïve Frederic into a real and rounded character, while Samuel J. Holmes as the sadly rejected nursery-maid is as poorly put upon as the girlfriend of that other famous seafarer, Popeye: Olive Oyl always came off worst and, although she lives in hope, Ruth’s sad face speaks volumes. Alan Winner as The Pirate King leaps and dashes about like a thing possessed and at one point hangs upside-down like a sleeping bat. The cast exudes energy from every pore and turns the whole thing into a riot of music and laughter. Whether it be as a rollicking band of pirates, or admitting that a policemen’s lot is not a happy one, or as Stanley’s daughters climbing over rocky mountain, these performers provide a vital injection of spirit into the proceedings which is completely irresistible.

Director Sasha Regan, choreographer Lizzi Gee and musical director Chris Mundy are to congratulated on giving what can be a rather moribund genre a new lease of life.

  • The Pirates of Penzance is at Union Theatre, Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 8 August 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3
  • Tickets 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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