All male Pirates

28 May

Another Pirates of Penzance. This time Sasha Regan’s all male production. This has done the rounds of the fringe venues in London and, fresh from an Australian tour, with a number of awards, is on at the Theatre Royal in Brighton for a week. I saw the performance on 27th May with the theatre, at a guess, less than 30% full but with a really enthusiastic audience.

The show was designed for a small fringe theatre. The cast of 18 isn’t of trained singers and, while many are quite experienced in musicals and in similar productions, that’s as far as it goes. Set and costumes were decent but obviously on the cheap. The accompaniment is on a single piano. Was it wise to do it in a theatre the size of Theatre Royal which, let’s face, is about the size for which the piece was written – with its full orchestra, chorus and star singers – and charging the sorts of prices they’d charge for a West End show on tour? I couldn’t help feeling that I might have enjoyed it more if it had been in smaller auditorium. Perhaps also, it was unfair to see it so soon after Mike Leigh’s production at ENO which had a full chorus and orchestra and people with the right voices singing the parts.

Why do G&S with all male casts? Unlike Shakespeare, there’s no point about authenticity and it’s hard to find any sexual politics in the operas that cross-casting like this will illuminate. I suppose there is the practical reason that men can sing falsetto and so it gives you much more scope for doubling roles. The cast created very capable choruses of girls, pirates and police and it would have been difficult to manage all the numbers on this number of a mixed cast. It emphasises the campness and misogyny of it all and it’s funny in a panto-ish sort of way.

The musical accomplishment of the singers is limited. Men singing falsetto can’t call on the sheer power volume that women can. Alan Richardson’s Mabel did a very strong job at the coloratura and sang his/her Act II aria touchingly but without the ease that a decent soprano would. I was conscious of technical effort going on. This applied less to Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth – an easier role of a battle-axe that is half-way (but only half-way) to pantomime dame – who sang very adequately in a lower register and created a convincing figure. Otherwise, this was men having fun camping it up as demure Victorian maidens and it was done amusingly enough.

Musically, we didn’t have a particularly gifted cast. Most were singing in that breathy, Lloyd-Webber-ish style that doesn’t really suit Sullivan’s melodies – phrases are chopped about and you just miss the sound that trained operatic voices can bring. Those glorious double choruses don’t come across. It was given efficient piano accompaniment so there was no need for amplification (thank goodness) but this was a cast, generally, that no more than got away with the music rather than giving much pleasure.

I felt that Sasha Regan’s production didn’t quite trust the text enough. The pilot/pirate confusion is clear enough from the words and their setting without any further mugging about it being needed. The lyrics weren’t always put across as clearly as they might be: Miles Weston didn’t really sing the Major General’s song as if it were a coherent piece of thought (and Andrew Shore’s performance at ENO demonstrated that, in fact, it is). Perhaps the fact that there’s only a piano accompaniment meant that you miss the wit of Sullivan’s music for the policemen, but Mike Leigh’s deadpan marching was far, far funnier than the Ministry of Silly Walks approach taken here for them and the whole point of “With cat like tread” is that it is meant to be very loud indeed – singing it softly takes away one of the best jokes.

What they had was energy and this was a busy, strongly choreographed production, with some nice jokes (I liked the policemen sneaking off rather than fight the pirates, the shenanigans during Sighing softly to the river were very funny), a very competent cast that was pretty easy on the eye and the huge advantage that Pirates is pretty much unsinkable. It’s a pleasant, enthusiastic enough evening and I’ve seen duller traditional performances.  But don’t let the awards kid you into thinking it’s that outstanding, because it isn’t.

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