Guest reviewer: Hope Priddle
The Pirate Queen sailed into the London Coliseum for a one-off charity concert in aid of Leukaemia UK. Set in 16th century Ireland, Boublil and Schönberg’s musical tells the real life story of fearless mariner Grace O’Malley as she embarks upon a heroic struggle to defend her homeland from English rule. A tale of politics and passion, The Pirate Queen is an inspiring story of one woman’s efforts to determine her own destiny in a world run by men.
Rachel Tucker shines in the titular role. Tucker is feisty and fearless, perfectly capturing O’Malley’s youthful optimism in the opening scenes of Act 1. Her voice soars across the auditorium as she performs ‘Woman’. Likewise, Tucker beautifully explores O’Malley’s tender side as a mother, daughter and lover. The intimate duets she shares with Jai McDowall as sweetheart Tiernan and Father Dubhdara, played powerfully by Earl Carpenter, are highly moving.
Hannah Waddingham has a hard task playing Queen Elizabeth I, an imperious foil to Tucker’s spirited O’Malley. However, she undoubtedly excelled in this role. Waddingham was poised and dignified, commanding every scene with her impressive operatic prowess.
Daniel Boys provided excellent comedic relief as the unfoundedly arrogant and hapless Lord Bingham, one of two antagonists alongside Grace’s husband and eventual betrayer Donal, played by the terrific Matt Pagan.
It is however, McDowall as Tiernan who steals the show with his rendition of ‘I’ll Be There’. He is endearing and charismatic as O’Malley’s sweetheart who proves his unconditional love for his Pirate Queen on more than one occasion.
The ensemble and choir are vocally assured and provide some beautiful harmonies. They are best showcased in a rousing rendition of ‘Sail to the Stars’ which brings the first act to a swelling crescendo.
Special plaudits must also go to choreographer Jack Ludwig, who’s sharp and spritely Irish dance numbers inject the piece with joyful energy.
Technical elements work together to elevate this semi-staged production, despite a few niggles with mics early on. Lighting and visuals by Ben Rogers are simple yet effective. Painterly illustrations depicting the Irish Coast and English Royal Court provide a pleasing backdrop, while the use of coloured lighting seamlessly signals a shift between land and sea. A single purple spotlight shone upon Elizabeth and Grace as they converse in Act 2 was an especially nice touch; this royal hue indicated a meeting of two equals, both noble in character if not in title.
Fran Levin’s costumes are timely and sympathetic, yet mostly modest. Hannah Waddingham is an exception here; she looks suitably regal in Elizabeth’s embellished gown towering over O Malley’s boyish and diminutive frame.
Though the performances are indeed outstanding, the score so often borrows melodies from Les Misérables and Miss Saigon that it becomes somewhat predictable. Boys’ll be Boys is a fun but ultimately trifling homage to Master of the House. In short, unashamedly familiar tunes followed by unfamiliar lyrics resulted in an effect which was at times jarring.
While audiences may find this musical too repetitive to work as a fully realised production, The Pirate Queen provided an evening of outstanding vocal talent and swashbuckling storytelling.
photo credit: Earl Carpenter