GIVE an opera a fresh lick of paint – and the results can be startling either way. A resounding success or doomed to failure.
Sasha Regan’s makeover of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 140 year old The Pirates of Penzance is startlingly good. Indeed, thrillingly so. It oozes buckets of exuberance and swells of zest. It is life affirming, hangover curing and mood changing.
Rock up at Wilton’s Music Hall in East London (a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge) in a foul mood and I promise that you will come out at the end rejuvenated and rebooted. One hour and forty five minutes of sheer luscious entertainment.
Regan’s winning formula in the painting stakes is to employ an all-male cast, a brave decision she took 10 years ago when she first directed The Pirates of Penzance at a theatre just over the River Thames from Wilton’s. It probably looks even more ambitious today, but it works a treat, helped by some barnstorming performances. Most notably from Alan Richardson (the spurned older woman, Ruth), Tom Bales (Mabel, the woman that Frederic casts Ruth aside for) and the Major-General’s band of merry daughters (of which Mabel is one).
To a man (or to a woman), they all shine like stars in a clear Cornwall night sky with their mix of falsetto voices (some admittedly a little deeper), their overt camp-ness and dare I say it overwhelming beauty. Bales’ Mabel shines most brilliantly although it is a close run thing with Dominic Harbison’s excellent Isabel (one of Mabel’s sisters) constantly preening like a cat that has just found the cream.
There is much more besides to enjoy in this terrific production. There is a strong performance from Tom Senior as Frederic whose allegiance to The Pirates of Penzance changes as frequently as a Cornwall tide. Not far behind are David McKechnie as the Major-General, a swash-buckling James Thackeray as leader of the pretty ineffective band of pirates and Duncan Sandilands’ Sergeant of Police who like the Pirate King presides over a motley crew of knee trembling officers. Sandilands’ deep voice is to be marvelled, booming from the stage (and occasionally off it) as if it has emerged from the depths of the Thames.
The production is an epic triumph whichever way you analyse it. The vastness of Wilton’s Music Hall is cleverly utilised with the cast emerging from all corners of the stalls and upstairs balcony. It is marvellously choreographed by Lizzi Gee – it is an absolute joy to view some of the movement of the daughters, pirates and motley police officers – and the lighting arranged by Ben Bull (on occasion vivid greens and reds) is eye-catching. The set designs (Robyn Wilson-Owen) are pleasing on the eye.
Some of the incidental touches – the use of brooms as oars, a broom handle as a horse and moustaches on sticks for the police – are inspired. It is all expertly held together by the musical direction of Richard Baker on piano.
There is something in this sparkling production of The Pirates of Penzance for everyone. Classic Gilbert and Sullivan music for traditionalists – ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’, ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’ – A Policeman’s Lot – et al. And rip roaring enjoyment for everyone. Gilbert and Sullivan for today’s generation.
Title image by Scott Rylander