THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE – Richmond Theatre, London.
Having previously enjoyed great worldwide success, this all-male production of The Pirates of Penzance is embarking on a UK tour. It is a lot of fun on many levels and it’s easy to see why it has such appeal. It captures the youthful spirit of boys play acting an adventure story while making a witty and farcical commentary on both social and theatrical conventions of the time that is Gilbert and Sullivan’s trademark. Director Sasha Regan pitches the tone just right, and the result is charming and full of humour.
Frederic (Samuel Nunn), due to a misunderstanding by his nanny Ruth (Alex Weatherhill) has spent the best years of his life so far as an apprentice to a band of pirates led by Pirate King (Neil Moors). Now aged 21 he is released from servitude and sets out to explore the world and find a maiden, although due to one minor discrepancy in his contract his plans quickly go awry. The lifestyle of his former companions, as mellow and inept at piracy as they are, never the less oppose his morals and he sets about trying to drive them away to win his beloved’s hand in marriage and her father’s approval.
The decision to cast only men harks back to times gone by when it was forbidden for women to act on the stage. Some of the humour, however childish and politically incorrect, does come from seeing men play women. But somehow it escapes appearing sexist or bawdy, and the soprano voices of the actors, especially Alan Richardson as love interest Mabel, are genuinely impressive. The silly rhymes and comical word play are ingenious, and the slap stick moments are witty rather than foolish.
Robyn Wilson’s design is sparse, but tasteful. The mostly white costumes and simple set compliment the intricate lyrics and outrageous plot perfectly, never drawing attention away from the material itself. The refreshing stripped back nature of this show is further supported by the sole piano accompanying the cast, played skilfully by Musical Director David Griffiths.
The Pirates of Penzance is very proper in its humour, the fact it retains a stiff upper lip in the midst of the ridiculous makes it all the more charming. It affectionately pokes fun at the British establishment, and although it premiered over 130 years ago much of what it has to say about society rings true today. It is finely tuned, nostalgic escapism and the audience appeared to have a jolly good time. This production embodies why this remains perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-loved opera.
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By Catherine Duffy