Uplifting, hilarious and witty – The Pirates of Penzance is a truly wonderful night out!

(c)Scott Rylander.

I have long been a fan of W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, so when I initially discovered that an all male production existed I had a lot of questions; Were the female roles being rewritten? Was the show in a different key? Could the show actually be performed properly without any women? 

I had no idea what to expect but without a doubt, when I saw the show at Wilton’s Music Hall, I was very pleasantly surprised.This production of The Pirates of Penzance’s charm lies in the fact that it knows exactly what it is and revels in the enjoyment of it. The show makes no attempt to trick the audience into thinking they are seeing anything but a group of men performing an opera – and it pokes fun at this very fact! There are no elaborate costumes or wigs to convince you otherwise. And yet, as the story continues you find yourself suspending your disbelief and getting lost in the story entirely.

One of my favourite moments was during “with cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal” – which is one of the most well known pieces from the opera. When the pirates came on, each of them held a torch which was being shone either on themselves, each other, or out to the audience. It was incredibly effective and really exciting to watch as it felt like quite immersive when all of the stage lights were down – especially when all of the policemen were hiding in amongst the audience and shining their lights at everyone. It really brought the scene to life and shows that some of the best effects can still be very simplistic.

The costumes (designed by Robyn Wilson-Owen) were very minimalist –  but effective. The daughters of the Major General’s costumes each consisted of a corset and plain hoop skirt, however this was still varied enough from the other outfits to establish them onstage. The same could be said for the pirates and the policemen, who also had very neutral colours to their costumes but still were specific enough in order for an audience to identify them. Whilst this was very obviously an artistic choice, and makes characters such as the Major General (who was in a bright red coat in Act One) really stand out on stage, there were times when the principals were quite difficult to recognise during a scene. Characters such as Mabel and Frederick felt lost during large ensemble moments, and it would have been nice to have something to distinguish these characters a little bit more.

The music, as to be expected, was superb – despite the fact that the whole score was delivered entirely by voice and piano alone. The harmonies, and very impressive ranges of the actors, was faultless and they delivered the score beautifully whilst telling the story with clarity and conviction. There were a couple moments where I worried a little for some of the actors whose singing was particularly high, as I was concerned whether or not their voices would be under any strain from singing to such extremes, however they all seemed very comfortable throughout the performance and didn’t falter at all.

The direction of the piece by Sasha Regan was excellent. The British humour of the show was wonderfully executed and the audience, myself included, seemed to be in a constant state of euphoria throughout. The use of the space was also very smart, as characters frequently used the balcony of the Wilton Music Hall and weaved in and out of the audience. This was especially funny when the daughters were first being introduced and they burst into the audience, instantly sending everyone into hysterics. The comedic timing was perfect and I enjoyed this element of the show in particular immensely.

One issue I did notice was that, if I hadn’t previously known the opera and the story, the language of the piece can still feel a little inaccessible at times. This of course isn’t the fault of the creative team, as this show has been around 1879 – but maybe more needs to be done in order to bring the likes of opera to a younger audience? Much like the works of Shakespeare, I think many young people feel a little put-off shows when they don’t feel fully engaged due to a slight language barrier and therefore this might mean that maybe we need to find another way of telling these stories to new audiences so that classic operas such as this can continue to live on in a more modern format.

This production, as a whole, is a delight. It breathes a new depth into a classic and beloved opera without losing it’s eccentric British quality. I would highly recommend it to any fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, or anyone who can appreciate a witty and silly story about British pirates. It was a wonderful treat to experience and a joyous night out.

By Emily Schofield

The Pirates of Penzance continues to play at Wilton’s Music Hall until the 16th March.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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