Christopher Walker reviews Sasha Regan’s Pirates of Penzance

Sasha Reagan is something of a living legend in South London theatre.

She took a disused paper warehouse in Union Street, Southwark, and turned it into a wonderful fringe theatre.

She has had several hit productions as a director, including Sweeny Todd and Cabaret, and is no stranger to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Her all-male version of The Pirates of Penzance will delight G & S lovers who are open to re-interpretation. It is available online for Easter week.

The background to Pirates is fascinating. Unlike all their other operas, Gilbert and Sullivan originally premiered this one in New York, to avoid the many rip-offs their previous works had suffered in the US market in an age before international copyright law was firmly established.

The title itself is a dig at those intellectual property thieves, as well as bit of a joke given that Penzance, a quaint Victorian seaside resort in 1879, was hardly a hotbed of pirates.

Pirates has long been popular, full of witty repartee and language-play as epitomised by its tongue-twisting hit I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE – PHOTO BY DANNY KAAN

This song has be used in everything from The Simpsons to Campbell’s soup commercials. You will also recognize Poor Wondering One, and the tub thumping With Cat like Tread. Sasha Regan’s production is true to the spirit of the original and captures a lot of its humour.

The plot is somewhat nonsensical, like all G & S. The hero, Frederic (played by heart-throb Tom Senior), having completed his 21st year, is released from his apprenticeship to a band of (rather soft) pirates, led by Oliver Savile, who gives a wonderfully spirited rendition of I am a Pirate King. Frederic has only ever seen one woman in his life, Ruth, played by a hilarious Leon Craig.

Ruth is not exactly attractive, and 26 years Frederic’s senior, her plans to wed him are foiled when they come across the Major General (a thigh-slapping David McKechnie) and his troupe of daughters, Connie (Lee Greenaway), Kate (Dominic Harbison), Isabel (Richard Russel Edwards) and Edith (Sam Kipling).

The cast are universally excellent with a wonderful cameo by Marc Akinfolarin as the Sergeant of Police.

Sasha Regan makes an insiders’ joke by having his hapless police troupe carry large fake moustaches on sticks – an allusion to the original Major General, Sir Garnet Wolseley, famed for his outsize moustache.

The ensemble are excellent, and clearly enjoy camping it up – Benjamin Vivian-Jones, Daniel Miles, Jamie Chidzey, Joel Elferink, Tom Duern and Matthew Facchino. Their fun is infectious.

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE – PHOTO BY DANNY KAAN

Why exactly Sasha chose to make this an all-male production is not immediately obvious. It is demanding on the guys’ vocal range, especially for the soprano role of Mabel.

When I asked Sasha her motives she replied: “The original concept came from the idea of boys doubling up as girls in school plays and translating that to adults. The all-male Pirates is purposely designed to reflect that.”

I’m not sure about this giving the production a “school feel,” but it certainly does make it have echoes of an unfashionable imperial past, which are obviously already present.

It feels like the kind of performance no doubt found in the British hill stations of India in the 1880s. This is accentuated by Richard Baker’s excellent but lonely piano playing (rather than a full orchestra).

There are of course some drawbacks to watching this on screen rather than on stage.

As the camera pulls back to show the ensemble dancing to Lizzi Gee’s choreography, you will wish to have a larger screen. But for those craving some operetta at Easter this is perfect – an original take on an old classic.

The performance will be streamed on: https://www.stream.theatre/season/26

Price £15 plus £3 transaction fee. Two hours.

 


 

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