Not being much of a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan (and having considered myself generally allergic to musicals), I was less than confident that I was going to enjoy Sasha Regan’s revival of The Pirates of Penzance, despite the fact that it sold out at New York’s Union Theatre last year and won the What’s On Stage’s Best Off-West End Production Award. Mamma Mia, after all, regularly sells out in this country.
But I was wrong.
For those unfamiliar with the 1879 operetta, it tells the story of Frederic, who, on reaching 21, is released from his apprenticeship to a band of tenderhearted pirates. He meets Mabel, the daughter of the portly Major-General Stanley, and they fall instantly in love. However, because he was born on 29th February, Frederic realises that he is still apprenticed to the pirates. Technically, he only has a birthday each leap year, and his apprenticeship states that he remains apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday. So he must serve for another 63 years. Chaos and hilarity ensue.
What makes this particular production unique, however, is that it fields an all-male cast. So the delicate Mabel and her army of white-frocked damsel sisters all have five-o-clock shadow, and the long-suffering Ruth, who is in love with Frederic, really is not “fair.” Not only does this make for even richer satire, but having watched this ingeniously designed and choreographed performance, I find it hard to believe that Gilbert and Sullivan’s iconic work was ever intended for anything other than an exuberantly camp, all-male rendition.
The cast are, to a man, excellent—particularly Ricky Rojas, the skinny-white-jean-wearing Pirate King, and Alan Richardson, the slightly unsettlingly high-voiced Mabel. Fred Broom (Major-General Stanley) gobbles a lot of his early lines, but his blustering, beefy charisma more than delivers the necessary comic effect.
Pirates is staged, appropriately, in Wilton’s Music Hall—the world’s oldest (surviving) grand music hall. Yet it could not be more appropriate for our times. Its impossible not to draw parallels between its portrayal of the blustering, inefficient aristocracy who ruled Britain during the Victorian era and the foolish, incompetent, bloated Westminster of today.