The Whingers make no secret of the fact that they’re not big fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, although to be fair they have very little experience of them.
Phil’s only G&S outing was to the Broadway transfer of The Pirates of Penzance many years ago at Drury Lane but he loved that so much he saw it twice.
Andrew once left The Mikado at the Coliseum at the interval (this is long before the Whingers started the now-commonplace trend of cutting one’s theatrical losses) but was first introduced to G&S as a youngster. His maternal grandparents owned a radiogram but curiously only about 10 LPs, nine of which seemed to be G&S and which he struggled boyfully to employ as entertainment on dull Worcestershire afternoon visits but without success. Luckily the tenth LP was The Sound of Music which as a result he knows off by heart and back to front much to the distress of many karaoke punters over the intervening years.
Anyway, Sasha Regan‘s All Male Pirates of Penzance which received the Best Off-West End Production (at The Union Theatre) at the WhatsOnStage Awards 2010 sounded an intriguing prospect. After much acclaim the show has berthed at the extraordinary Wilton’s Music Hall whose dilapidated state seems somehow to offer a natural home for the Whingers, yet strangely Phil had never been there before. But while he was quite excited, Andrew confessed to “slightly dreading” a return to that eccentric gramophone collection of his youth. The operetta concerns a band of the worst pirates ever whose code is honourable enough that they will not kidnap anyone who is an orphan, a fact so well known that entire crews claim to be orphans in order to escape their clutches. Indentured into the half-witted band of would-be cut-throats is one Frederic (Russell Whitehead) whose presence there is explained by the fact that his nursemaid Ruth (Samuel J Holmes) had misheard Frederic’s father’s instructions and apprenticed him to a pirate, instead of to a ship’s pilot, a gag which is not so much cracked as hammered to smithereens by having an entire song devoted to it.
Anyway, it goes on much in this vein with some of Andrew’s most traumatic childhood memories dredged up and splattered all over the audience.
And really the saving grace is the fact that this production has layered its own slightly more sophisticated humour over the top in having all of the parts played by men. For Frederic is on the point of asking Ruth to marry him. She is a quarter century older than he and the only woman he has ever seen; he worries that she might be “plain” compared to other women but she assures him she isn’t. This somewhat ghastly set-up is thankfully all undermined by the fact that all the women are men in frocks (but without wigs) singing castrato falsetto.
Aided by Robyn Wilson‘s set of wooden crates the result has a slight “let’s put the operetta on here ” air about it and is is rather charming. There are plenty of inventive visual touches (even the policemen’s moustaches get their own choreography, Lizzie Gee) and the almost entirely white costumes (Frances Jones) give the whole thing a sheen of rather pleasing guilelessness. The performances are similarly artless (in a good way) on the whole – the temptation to camp it up has wisely mostly been resisted which really would have been over-egging the pudding (although the occasional modern references to National Trust paths and so on are welcome). A special mention goes to Alan Richardson as love-interest Mabel who simply must be given the role of Francis Farmer in a revival of Calamity Jane, such is his similarity (in semi-drag, anyway) to Dick Wesson.
It was all so smile-inducing that the Whingers more than happily tripped back into the auditorium for the second half.
This was a preview and so we hope that Wilton’s does not turn out to be acoustically wrong for this production. At the Saturday matinee we could hardly hear the amusingly Hispanic Cornish Pirate King (Ricky Rojas). Indeed, quite a few of the lyrics were lost including most of the famously fast and tricky patter song, “I am a very model of a modern major general” performed by ex-Four Poofs and a Piano performer Fred Broom. Perhaps with a full house the sound would be better absorbed and clearer.
But the singing on the whole is terrific, particularly from the chorus. But the Whingers had to ask: how on earth do these boys sing so high? They are absurdly young -haven’t things dropped yet? The Whingers who “dropped” long before most of this cast were even born and famously sport basso profundo singing voices for their signature “Oom Pah Pah” were in awe.
The sound problems would have meant that this deserved a 3 glass rating but we’re marking it up in the hope that the acoustics get sorted, our uncharacteristic generosity explained by the fact that preview tickets are less than half price, a piece of goodwill genius that larger musical productions could profitably learn from.
We also trust that the very distracting child in the audience who gurgled and chatted throughout will not be a permanent fixture.