The Pirates of Penzance

W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Union Theatre, Southwark
(2009)

Production photo

'That was great!' declared the young man behind me to his girl friend as the audience's vociferous acclamation of the audience subsided at the end of this all-male revival of this 130-year-old comic opera. I am sure everyone there agreed with him - and this was an ordinary audience not a first night packed with friends, for your reviewer could not fit it in last week. I hope that doesn't mean it's all sold out by the time you read about it, for it deserves to be.

The last traditional production of Pirates that I saw was lack-lustre and boring and, not having seen this theatre's previous all-male summer productions of HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance I had no idea what delights there were in store.

Sasha Regan's production doesn't send up the fragile story; it simply takes it at face value and with Lizzi Gee's lively choreography gives it an energy that breathes fresh life into the old favourite.

Of course, it is ridiculous: a nursemaid is told to take a little boy and apprentice him to a pilot but mishears and instead makes him apprentice to a pirate. Reaching age 21 and his indenture over, he turns his back on his old mates and the now middle-aged maid who wants to marry him, to join the forces of law and order against them, meeting meanwhile the chorus line of daughters of a senior army officer disporting on a beach and falling for one of them. When he is about to lead the local constabulary against the pirates, the Pirate King and nursemaid appear to demand his continued loyalty for his apprenticeship contract specifies that it continues until his 21st birthday and, since he was born on February 29th one leap year that means he must remain apprenticed over six decades longer, until 1940.

You may not believe it but this cast behave as if they truly do. That is the secret of all good comedy, and it makes the plot's sudden reversals and solutions a natural part of life in comic opera Cornwall. Buoyed along by Sullivan's glorious and catchy songs, which are exquisitely delivered, who could fail to go along with them? And, since most of the dialogue is delivered as recitative, it stays on the same high.

The simpering naivety of Gilbert's young ladies might be distasteful in today's feminist PC world but, just as cross-gender casting helps to throw new light on character, it here allows a performance of mid-nineteenth-century femininity that matches Victorian sensibilities to be a coy delight.

It is a strong cast, flee-footed (especially Brandon Whittle's pirouetting pirate) and tuneful. There's a dashingly manly Pirate King in Alan Winner, abetted by Michael Burgen's Samuel. Adam Ellis displays an amazing vocal register as Mabel, paired with a suitably romantic apprentice Frederic in Russell Whitehead, while Samuel J Holmes' nursemaid Ruth is her competition.

Fred Broom's could do with a fraction clearer articulation to make his Major General Stanley fully effective but gives him a personality that quite explains his daughters' devotion and perfectly times the hiatuses in his signature number 'I am the very image of a modern Major General' as he tries to think up words to match the rhyming scheme.

A practical but unobtrusive set by Robyn Wilson-Owen foregrounds the actors while Sophie Mosberger's dressing-up box costumes make their own witty comment with a range of Victorian fashion that includes a rather Edwardian waistcoat and leg of mutton sleeves that suggests Stewart Charlesworth's delightfully schoolma'amy Edith has just got off her bicycle.

I found it a little odd that the Cornish constabulary uniform should be a sort of nightshirt (Benjamin James's Sergeant excepted) but it no doubt chopped the hire fees and was made up for by their moustaches on sticks.

It would seem churlish not to name the whole of this well-integrated, talented cast who so perfectly complement each other. They are Adam Lewis Ford (Isabel), Dieter Thomas (Kate), Leonard Greenaway (Constance), Daniel Maguire, Adam Black, Lewis Barnshaw, Frank Simons and Raymond Tate and sat the piano there is musical director Chris Mundy to whom the whole production must owes a great deal. Incidentally, the Union needs the money to purchase a new piano and has launched an appeal for £25 to pay for each key. Cheques should be sent to the theatre.

Until 8th August 2009

Robert Tanitch reviewed this production when it transferred to Wilton's Music Hall in 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton