Review: The Pirates of Penzance, Wilton’s Music Hall

“’Stop, ladies, pray.
‘A man!’”

So just a few days after seeing the touring production of Pirates in Brighton, another production appears in London: for such a fan of this show as I am, heaven! This particular Pirates of Penzance is a transfer of the all-male Union Theatre production from last year which has been remounted at the atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End, one of my favourite venues in London. And in a blatant attempt to make me fall yet further in love with the idea, preview ticket prices were set at £10, less than half the regular ticket-price.

To be honest, it did take me a little time to adjust to the different production: having seen (and completely loved) a highly professional version by an opera company so recently, this presents an interesting alternative take which was no less professional. What it perhaps lacks in the vocal side of things, it more than makes up for with a much greater sense of the comic potential contained within Gilbert & Sullivan’s work. And what makes this such an effective take on this show is that despite the conceit of an all-male cast, it actually has very little impact on the production itself. It is played as straight as a die, no (well, hardly any) camping it up or tipping the wink and so this becomes a refreshing new look at a musical already full of natural wit and genuine comedy, rather than being painfully self-aware and post-modern.

Accompanied by Chris Mundy’s excellent piano playing, the ensemble of 18 create a rich sound that fills this old-time music hall which feels like the perfect venue for G+S. Adapting such a lyrical piece for a different (and much more echoey)theatrical space clearly has its issues and it seems to have been done largely successfully here, the four sisters in particular combine voices to a surprisingly beautiful effect. I would only advise putting Fred Broom’s Major General further forward throughout his eponymous number as much of his lyrical content did not travel well to the back of the hall which is a shame as he delivers the song with real panache. Elsewhere, Alan Richardson is at times breathtaking good and remarkably consistent with both speaking and singing voices as the soprano Mabel, Russell Whitehead’s slave of duty Frederic is strongly and manfully played and Samuel J Holmes comes close to stealing the show as nurse Ruth, gamely dowdying up in a cast of beautiful young things.

Costumes have been nicely realised with a minimum of fuss and frippery, simple white linens abound and it looks effective. With a mostly bare stage, focus is maintained on the vocal and choreographical skills on show (the policemen’s dance moves along with their portable moustaches were a personal favourite) and there’s some nice use of the venue’s idiosyncracies, the maidens arrive from the back of the balcony so we hear them long before we see them and playing “With Cat-Like Tread…” in the dark with the groups of police and pirates spread throughout the whole hall, barely illuminated by a few torches was a brilliant touch.

It was most educational seeing it with a group of people who had no previous with this play. Where I thought they had skipped through a few plot points too quickly (i.e. establishing the importance of Frederic’s sense of duty), most everyone seemed to have little problem in following the story and loving the whole show, proving my assertion from earlier in the week that this really is one of the best Gilbert+Sullivan shows for novices. Of course it is helped by productions which are of as high quality as this one, at once a pleasingly faithful yet delightfully irreverent take on this old stalwart.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: no programme available in preview period, but there is a free cast list.

2 Replies to “Review: The Pirates of Penzance, Wilton’s Music Hall”

  1. Thanks. I do hope that they sort out the sound issues before opening night, I can totally see how it would have worked at the Union, but they really do need to adapt to the different space: I couldn't believe when they had the Major-General doing the choreography at the back of the stage instead of being front and centre.
    Still, good show!

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