Something rather wonderful is happening at Wilton’s Music Hall. Amidst the crumbling fabric of this very special venue, another crumbling relic has been firmly returned to full health and vitality.
The Union Theatre’s production of the Pirates of Penzance has arrived in E1 in all its camp, draggy honesty. And rather fabulous it is too.
The gimmick is that this production is all-male. Yes, not since Hinge & Bracket has a man been as convincing a Mabel. But more of that anon. The general take on the production is actually simplicity. Characters are in simple whites, beiges and blacks, with blue uniforms for the police. The backdrop is a large white drape for the first half, none for the second half, both cleverly and boldly lit. The stage contains varying (and slightly dizzying) heights of packing case with tubs of grass to add dynamics. The remaining set is the theatre itself, with its barley sugar columns and spit-and-sawdust feel coming into its own as the cast spread themselves amongst the audience.
The all-male cast do camp it up like there’s no tomorrow. But the overall effect is miraculous. One of the most stolid of the G&S canon seems to come alive again. The simpering women are now characterful and comedic, an unruly bunch who are entirely ‘up for it’. The two main female leads – Mabel and Ruth – are played with very differing aplomb by Alan Richardson and Samuel J Holmes. The former creates an astonishing opening effect with his falsetto soprano coloratura in Poor Wand’ring One. He keeps it going, shoring up his resources for a couple of very notable notes at chorus climaxes. However, the effect does wane eventually along with the voice, which is achieved at the expense of fullness of tone and by the end has become thin indeed. That is not to detract from the achievement, but it is a mercy that the Pirates is such a short piece.
Holmes’ Ruth is a more robust creature – and more male-sounding – as well as being a rather more conventionally drag-act performance. However, the matter-of-factness seemed to traduce that sense of misogyny that lingers around G&S’s treatment of their contralto characters. The parting from Frederic at the end of Act 1 was touching indeed.
Frederic – Russell Whitehead – has a pleasant tenor which grew in strength as the evening progressed. He was athletic in all of the ‘business’ and a suitably dashing hero. Ricky Rojas, as the Pirate King, had a latin accent which lent itself well to the character, if not to audibility and there were a few moments of strain to understand both dialogue and song. His voice also seemed a little light for his big number, I am a Pirate King. Again, though the commitment was in no doubt and the energy of the performance overall trounced any concerns. I can’t quite say the same for the Chief of Police, Joe Maddison, and I would have liked someone who could have more confidently plumbed the depths and projected vocally into the auditorium. Fred Broom was an effectively blustering Major-General, and conveyed a grandeur which set him above the barminess of the people around him.
The whole endeavour was supported by very effective accompaniment on a single piano by Chris Mundy, pacing was astutely judged to keep things flowing whilst also giving enough breathing space that the audience could keep up. The latter point is important because the voices were not uniformly able to project confidently into the auditorium, even in a venue as relatively intimate as Wilton’s. Intermezzo’s advice to get there early and get near the front is sound advice. We were six rows back (due to a specially-reserved block booking) and much further back and we would have struggled, especially with the Mabel of the later stages…
What took all of this delightful madcap on to a higher level was the choreography and direction. The energy and sharpness that were on display were a joy to behold. From the opening chorus of pirates tumbling and joshing, through to the late Victorian ‘ladies’ tiptoeing gingerly over rockpools on the sea-shore, and on and on: the exuberance of it all swept the audience along. The boys of the chorus were able to slip in and out of falsetto
in a very effective way (or were they genuine countertenors or altos, I found it hard to be sure?), so that any vocal tricks were not at all distracting and only added to the quirkiness of the Gilbertian ‘topsy-turvy’. Sight gags were well-deployed. The chorus’s facial expressions in reaction to main characters were all individual and provided a riot of minor distractions. A total blast of a show.
For me, the success of this show is particularly heartwarming because of the modernity it conveys upon a body of work which can so often be dismissed as dusty and Victorian. Gilbert and Sullivan were the cutting edge of their day and, as I noted in my comments on Iolanthe, it is still possible to be brought up short by the modernity of Gilbert’s words. So much of what makes British music-comedy culture so fabulously rich has grown from the seeds sown by G&S: just think Coward, Novello, Flanders & Swann, Victoria Wood, as well as the greats of American music theatre. Anything that does such a fabulously joyous job of proving the contemporary energy behind these works deserves to be celebrated with shouts from the very rafters. When those rafters are those of that Jewel of the East End, Wilton’s, it is a privilege beyond measure. Can a venue have been more perfectly suited to Frederic’s question of the Major-General:
“But why does he sit, night after night, in this draughty old ruin?”
It runs until 16 May. Tickets (as of now) are still available. Go!