The Pirates of Penzance

Gilbert and Sullivan
Union Theatre production
Wilton’s Music Hall

Production photo

Gilbert’s libretto is a burlesque of tender-hearted pirates, timid policemen, romantic girls, the peerage, the army, Victorian values (especially Victorian duty), operacrobatics (especially coloratura), Gothic melodrama, patriotism and Queen Victoria.

The Pirate King argues that, compared with so-called respectable professions, piracy is comparatively honest. The pirates, orphans to a man, turn out to be noblemen in disguise. "We love our House of Peers," sing the chorus.

Gilbert, who invariably took a subversive attitude to British institutions, didn't get his knighthood until after Queen Victoria was dead.

Wilton’s Music Hall is a short walk from Tower Bride, Tower Hill or Aldgate East. Founded in 1859. It is the world’s oldest surviving music hall and well worth a visit on its own account. It is the perfect venue for this all-male production; though it has to be said that, acoustically, the hall is not kind to solos and duets which are sung right at the back of the stage

There is nothing original about all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. The British publish schools used to do them all the time in the first fifty years of the 20th century. What is new is that it is a professional company doing it and that they don’t (as some people might think) turn it into a gay drag show.

Sasha Regan’s modest, threadbare, piano-only production begins so badly and the pirates are so amateurish that I sit there wondering what on earth I have let myself in for.

Then, fortunately, the girls come on, or rather the boys come on as girls, and the whole production is instantly transformed.

The silly, simpering romantic girls are easily the best thing about the show. The boys, all in white, wear corsets and petticoats but they don’t wear wigs and they don’t wear make-up. Their jet-black hair is cut short and neatly combed. They look like those girls in the 1920s who wanted to look boyish.

The boys do not camp it up. There is no sexual innuendo, not even when Frederic (Russell Whitehead) and Mabel (Alan Richardson) kiss on the lips. Richardson’s colatura is amazing and he is surprisingly touching in his solo.

The cowardly policemen sport delightful walrus moustaches on mask sticks.

This all-male production (first seen at the Union Theatre in 2009) is good clean fun for the whole family and will transfer to the Rose Theatre in Kingston on 2nd June.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

Are you sure?