Since premiering at the Union Theatre a decade ago, Sasha Regan’s All-Male The Pirates of Penzance has enjoyed extraordinary success, including several revivals around London and a tour of Australia. It also comes as no surprise that it has spawned all-male versions of Pinafore, Mikado and Iolanthe too, because for some inexplicable reason, it works.
The important factor in these all-male productions, and in the case of The Pirates of Penzance in particular, is that they are presented as written. The female characters are still female, and portrayed in the same way, they just happen to be played by men. That’s not to say there isn’t an element of ‘camp’ in these productions, but it’s used to emphasise Gilbert and Sullivan’s already comedic libretto. There was wild laughter from the audience as the young ‘maidens’ appeared for the first time, it’s undeniably funny, and the way they are presented feels entirely natural.
Sasha Regan directs a production that is strangely modern, if it weren’t for the traditionally poetic language employed, you would struggle to realise it was written 140 years ago. Robyn Wilson-Owen’s set is simple but effective, just a few wooden crates tactically stacked, and a backdrop of clouds, are all that is required. Some clever use of the many cast members to create other spaces, such as the pirate ship itself, adds depth and texture to the stage. Combine that with Ben Bull’s striking lighting design, and you find yourself with a really beautiful looking interpretation of this operetta.
Aside from Gilbert’s witty script (the funniest of them all in my opinion) and Sullivan’s impossibly catchy score, played on a single piano, it is that eighteen strong, all-male cast who are the real main attraction. From Daniel Miles and Patrick Coulter’s fantastically expressive performances in the ensemble to James Thackeray’s wonderful Pirate King, there’s not a weak link in the chain.
The audience waited with baited breath for the infamous patter song performed by the Major General, and David McKechnie did not disappoint with a seemingly effortless performance. Tom Senior does a remarkable job as Frederic, the slave to duty who finds himself to be aged just five and a quarter, thanks to the paradox facilitated by being born in a leap year.
His love interest Mable comes in the form of an outstanding performance from Tom Bales, who not only allows us to forget for a moment we are watching a man play a woman, but captivates us with a beautiful solo number. It is as Ruth that Alan Richardson captivates the audience with a multilayered performance, from outcast to villain, it’s all delivered with expert comic timing.
After so many years it’s perhaps surprising that Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are still to anyone’s taste, yet this very model of a modern production shows that these works can still be produced with some kind of innovative twist. The Pirates of Penzance does work particularly well in this set up, thanks to it’s highly comedic nature and characters which benefit from a little bit of camp, but it’s the quality of Sasha Regan’s work which elevates it to a new level.