(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 9 June)
Sasha Regan’s all-male staging of the much-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance is closer in spirit and appearance to a Matthew Bourne production, such as his mainly male Swan Lake, than to a pure drag show.
Designer Robyn Wilson-Owen has created a nice blend of late 19th century white gowns when the hard-working ensemble portray Major-General Stanley’s bevy of wards with little attempt to disguise the arm muscles, hair-styles or facial features of the singer-actor-dancers. As pirates, they also wear white with a flamboyant waistcoat to differentiate Neil Moors’ Pirate King and a modest jerkin for Samuel Nunn’s Frederic.
Miles Western’s Major-General is natty in scarlet coat, white breeches and gleaming black boots; he also manages the tongue-twisting two patter songs very well. If Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth carries off the acting honours, it is Alan Richardson’s Mabel, with a seemingly effortless ability to sing coloratura embellishments who wins the vocal stakes.
Mabel is flanked by a finely differentiated quartet of “sisters” – Chris Theo Cook, Dale Page, Ben Irish and Richard Russell Edwards; their corresponding pirate persona are equally well played. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is inventive while not above taking a couple of side-swipes at G & S conventions.
Pirate King Moos is a genial sort of cove, a trifle light-voiced perhaps for the role. The platoon of police, with their blue shirts and lorgnette moustaches, are led by James Waud; both “When the foeman bares his steel” and “when a felon’s not engaged” make their proper impact and proved near-showstoppers.
Most of Gilbert’s (to 21st century ears) excruciating puns are left intact. The score is a piano reduction with musical director David Griffiths at audience level in the orchestra pit; the a cappella “Hail, poetry” is particularly fine. Some of the shifts between registers, particularly falsetto and natural voice, lie a trifle awkwardly; Nunn and Weatherhill wandered off-key in their “Oh! false one” exchange.
If you’re an old-school G & S purist, wedded to the old D’Oyly Carte Company style, you may not enjoy this type of production. But if you take an open mind to it, there’s much to savour. And – these days – what a treat to hear people humming the tunes as they leave the theatre.
The Pirates of Penzance plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 13 June and at the Hackney Empire between 24 and 28 June.