views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Pirates of Penzance
Hackney Empire
26th September 2012


Having previously directed all male adaptations of The Pirates of Penzance at her own Union Theatre, Wilton's Music Hall and Kingston's Rose Theatre, Sasha Regan of Regan De Wynter productions has brought her award-winning show to the Hackney Empire, with the very talented Alan Richardson once again taking the lead as Mabel.

Gilbert and Sullivan's original operetta can only be described as good old fashioned British silliness, which hasn't aged one jot since its original premiere in 1879. Regan adds men in drag, camps it up and throws in a few extra asides of dialogue, adding even more humour to the original work, but she doesn't go any further than that, nor does she need to. There is no grand orchestra, only one man and a piano, however musical supervisor Michael England demonstrates perfectly that with a strong vocal ensemble, the only support required is a dexterous tinkling of the ivories.

As Ruth (Joseph Houston) explains in "When Frederic was a little lad", an unfortunate mistake led to Frederic (Matthew Gent) being apprenticed as a pirate until his 21st birthday, rather than as the pilot intended by his father. Now having seemingly reached that milestone, he's free to leave his comrades and start a new life on the straight and narrow. His path crosses with the beautiful Mabel and to Ruth's dismay, he falls in love with the young girl immediately.

There is very little on stage in the way of fixed props, with some boxes arranged in the background for the performers to climb up and over or hide behind, as befits each song. The emptiness is deliberate, not simply to leave room for the rather large cast to perform together, but to allow them the freedom to essentially become part of the staging themselves, keeping the scenery constantly fluid. As the Pirate King (Nic Gibney) declares "Oh, better far to live and die", the chorus creates a ship at sea using a length of fabric, some dustpan brushes and mainly, a large dose of exuberance. Executed brilliantly, the choreography from Lizzie Gee is playful and intelligent.

In what is unquestionably the operetta's most famous number, Neal Moors declares "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" without once stumbling or dropping in volume. The ensemble gather in front of him and all move in excellent synchronisation to give the effect of Moors riding horseback, before moving away to reveal he's one man prancing about with a broom. All the performers work well together with great comic timing.

Gibney initially suffers from some projection issues, as do some of the other lower-voiced singers, but he overcomes these in Act II, putting in strong vocals in "Now for the pirates' lair". None of the performers are aided by microphones, therefore they have the challenging task of being loud and pitch perfect, whilst moving around the stage and at times, the stalls and dress circle.

In "Climbing over rocky mountain", Edith (Stewart Charlesworth), Kate (Dale Page) and the chorus ramp up the campness, double stepping around the stage and twirling handkerchiefs. Again, as in "Oh, better far to live and die", the choreography is delightful. The male chorus, dressed in pink corsets and thinned down crinolines are incredibly expressive and elicit hearty, well-deserved laughter.

However, although the piece is a belly-laughing experience for the most part, in "Stay, Frederic, stay", the mood suddenly shifts from light-hearted to desolate. It is testament to Alan Richardson's musical and acting talent that in this scene, the fact that he is a man wearing a silly dress becomes forgotten and instead we witness a deeply emotional scene between Mabel and Frederic, two unfortunate sweethearts parted reluctantly out of a sense of duty. The lighting creates a feeling of intimacy by focussing solely on Richardson and Gent, but it is Richardson's heartfelt performance which makes the scene truly something special.

In "A rollicking band of Pirates we" and "With cat-like tread", once again the performers spill out of the stage, with the Police, as led by the Sergeant (Adam Vaughan), creeping along the aisles and back of the stalls with torches and singing harmony from in and around the audience. It's a crowd pleasing move and given that there are no restricted views in the stalls at Hackney Empire, a seat at the back will prove more entertaining than a better seat in the dress circle. If given the choice, sit downstairs for a more immersive experience.

After they finish their short run in London, the team is heading half way around the world to show off their polished performance. And no doubt Aussie crowds will go just as wild for this great British export.

The Pirates of Penzance ran from 26th to 30th September 2012 at the Hackney Empire, before beginning a tour of Australia.

Nearest tube station: Hackney Central (Overground)

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