Review - The Pirates of Penzance at Wilton's Music Hall
It's been ten years since London's tiny Union Theatre in Southwark, SE1 first launched their all-male cast production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, and its unquestionably been the biggest hit of the several G&S productions director Sasha Regan has also staged, including Iolanthe, The Mikado and HMS Pinafore. This production has since travelled throughout Britain and to Australia (in 2012) and it is now triumphantly back at Wilton's Music Hall where it previously played in 2010.
In the years in-between, both the Union and Wilton's have undergone massive transformations: the Union has moved to brand-new premises right across the street from its former railway arch home, and Wilton's has been extensively refurbished. But there's still a scrappy, improvisational yet deeply historical charm to both this production and the venue it is now back at.
When this version was born in the fringe, make-do threadbare aesthetic of the original Union Theatre (with its notorious layerings of mold on the walls and its unspeakable toilets), it also released an energy, fresh-faced vivacity and even sexuality in the show it had seldom previously had. Though a 1980s version of the show from producer Joseph Papp that had transferred from the Public's Delacorte Theatre to Broadway and subsequently came to London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane went some way towards turning it into a modern-day musical, G&S's brand of starched satire had mostly become museum pieces, admired for their musical wit and verbal dexterity, but barely relevant otherwise to most modern theatregoers.
The Union found a new way of doing it - faithful where it mattered, injecting elements of knowing camp at other points, but ultimately surprising us in their sincerity.
Yes, like the celebrated classical ballet troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, it added a layer of texture and sometimes comedy that these were clearly blokes playing all the women's roles. Body hair is frequently on open display (most armpits are unshaved), and some of them have hairy chests, too. But as stunningly costumed by Robyn Wilson-Owen, there's also femininity and grace here; and under musical director Richard Baker, some frequently sublime falsetto singing. This doesn't feel arch or contrived either, but naturally organic. And to hear Tom Bales's delicate, delicious Mabel, dueting with Tom Senior's dashing Frederic, is to be swallowed in swooning melody.
There's also the right comic weight to the monstrous Ruth (Alan Richardson, who has previously played Mabel in this production), the Major General (David McKechnie) and Pirate King (James Thackeray) to keep proceedings as buoyant as they need to be.
In a production that replaces resources with resourcefulness - so that, for instance, two stepladders and a ribbon sheet become a pirate ship and the sea, and a broomstick becomes a horse that is even fed a carrot - this is one of the most charming, delightful musicals in town.
The Pirates of Penzance tickets are available now.