Palace Theatre, London
There’s a beautiful sense of homecoming to the return of Gilbert & Sullivan to the West End, even if it’s only for a weekend. The Palace Theatre was founded by Richard D’Oyly Carte as The Royal English Opera House in 1891 and opened with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe so the arrival there of Sasha Regan’s All-Male The Pirates of Penzance could hardly be more apposite and turned out to be a real festive treat.
We don’t see much operetta around these days but Regan’s commitment to the cause has been admirable. It’s over a decade now since she first reinvigorated the form with this production, and working her way through the G&S catalogue (for my money, Iolanthe is the best), transfers, national tours and even international tours are a testament both to the enduring quality of the material and the frisson that comes from this method of interpretation.
It would be good to live in a world where the sight of men in dresses doesn’t induce titters from the audience but let’s be real, the kind of people who wouldn’t laugh are down the road at Death Drop. But the genius of Regan’s production is that it soon shuts people up as the integrity and reverence for the original is apparent from the off. There may be a large amount of humour here – I’d forgotten just how much – but there’s never once any mockery.
Instead, there’s just the wonderful delights galore. Iconic tunes such as ‘Poor wand’ring one’ and ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’ marshalled skilfully by musical director Richard Baker from the piano. Superlative falsetto work whether from the whole company on the feather-light ‘Climbing over rocky mountain’ or from the ever-superb Alan Richardson’s Mabel throughout. The swashbuckling splendour of Oliver Savile’s Pirate King. And, since I’m only human, the eighth wonder of the world which is Tom Senior’s thighs in those pants.
The sparseness of Robyn Wilson-Owen’s design with its simple but inventive costumes wisely allows the room for Lizzi Gee’s choreography to remain deliciously fun. And the way in which humour is mined even the smallest lyrical reference or interaction is just refreshingly good fun. It’s enough to make you wonder whether there shouldn’t be a full run of the show once theatreland has refound a little equilibrium.