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

Sasha Regan’s all-male cast triumphantly returns from touring Australia to once again commandeer Wilton’s Music Hall, a full ten years after the show’s debut. Far from the staleness that often creeps into such long-running productions, this delightful show is refreshed by a young and exuberant cast who embrace both the lively original and Regan’s revamp with gusto and aplomb.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic operetta tells the satirical story of Frederic, an orphan boy raised by pirates, who on the day of his twenty-first birthday, is free from his indentures and vows to turn against piracy. Gilbert’s script abounds with wordplay and witticisms that still elicit chuckles and belly laughs from a twenty-first century audience. I’m amazed actually, at how well most of the 140-year-old jokes land!

Having never ventured previously to Wilton’s Music Hall, I am utterly charmed by its shabby warmth and gorgeous original features. It’s a real gem of a venue and feels like the perfect spiritual home for this particular show. You can easily imagine yourself experiencing the show as a nineteenth century patron would have done, except of course, for the abundant men in petticoats.

Since the debut of this production in 2009, gender-reversed or all male/female theatre seems to have become much more de rigueur. For this particular show it is a masterstroke that not only produces moments of hilarity (in particular the first entrance of “the ladies”), but also judiciously evades plot-points that may have otherwise been uncomfortable for modern audiences, for instance the harassment and kidnap of young women. Instead, Regan here succeeds in not only retaining but enhancing the humour of the original. The show celebrates queerness and – crucially – the men in dresses are not figures of ridicule, but of celebration. This is where the production shines most brightly.

For opera aficionados, perhaps the vocal ranges of the performers don’t quite live up to the high notes demanded by the female parts of Sullivan’s score, but for those less musically inclined (i.e. me) this is of little matter. Most impressive amongst them is Alan Richardson’s hysterical Ruth, who nails every note. Similarly, David McKechnie’s crisp enunciation nimbly carries off one of the trickiest songs in show business – the ‘Major General’s Song’. Tom Bales, who here steps into Richardson’s shoes as love-interest Mabel, gives a blushing and delicate performance (though his soprano wavers slightly) opposite Tom Senior’s dashingly earnest Frederic.

Led by the swaggering moustachioed Pirate King played by James Thackeray, the burly ensemble is altogether brimming with talent and vigour, indulging in every absurdism and exaggerated physical comedy with genuine fun. The whole thing is so silly and so joyful, that you would have to have a heart made of stone not to come of it beaming from ear to ear. Though the production is perhaps slightly ramshackle, the set mostly made up of wooden boxes and the accompaniment entirely produced by one heroic piano player, this only adds to its charm.

Jam-packed with gleefully ditties and the jolliest of japes, this incarnation of the classic operetta will delight with its unbridled silliness both Gilbert and Sullivan devotees and newcomers alike.

The Pirates of Penzance is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall until 16 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Wilton’s Music Hall website.