After several years of clashing diaries and missed opportunities, I finally made it to the legendary Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel. John Wilton’s magnificent music hall was opened in 1859, and has survived the obligatory fire and demolition notice on several occasions since then. It eventually acquired Grade II status and reopened as a theatrical venue in 1997. We are deep in Jack the Ripper territory and a huge Victorian brass lamp announces the venue in Graces Alley. The interior is breath taking in its simplicity; a traditional bar at the front gives way to a truly authentic auditorium behind. Many original period features have been retained, including the ornate balconies and brass shelled spotlights. A solitary upright piano is the only trace of musical accompaniment. A two tier stage is the focal point in a spectacularly high ceilinged auditorium. If any venue could recreate the true atmosphere of Victorian music hall, this is it.
The Pirates of Penzance is of course the sparkling comic opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan in 1879. Probably their best known and most accessible opera, it tells the tale of Frederic, who having reached the age of 21 is released from apprenticeship with a friendly band of pirates. He meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley and they fall in love. However, Frederic discovers he was born in a leap year, so only marks his birthday once every four years. The terms of apprenticeship specify that he leaves only when he reaches his 21st birthday; another 63 years to go! Frederic resumes his duty, consoled by Mabel’s promise to wait for him. But what temptations await him on the high seas?
The 18 strong all-male cast is absolutely brilliant in a series of vocally demanding roles. Most double up in male and female parts, a daunting proposition for any performer. The opera features a range of distinctive characters, including the Major-General, Pirate King, Sargent of Police, Mabel and Edith. Both solo and ensemble pieces require the cast to move through a complex series of vocal ranges: bass, bass-baritone, baritone and tenor for the male parts; contralto, mezzo soprano and soprano for the female parts. To these untrained ears they were pitch perfect and I couldn’t detect a stray note. Adding further to the degree of difficulty, they only had a pianist, musical director Richard Baker, to back them. Several vocal sections were also performed acapella, which was like asking a trapeze artist to perform without a safety net. But they were so good it would be unfair to single out any one individual.
There are only so many superlatives one can reasonably bestow on any production, but the discipline required to create a performance of this excellence can only be imagined; a theatrical masterstroke.
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Libretto: W.S. Gilbert
Director: Sasha Regan
Musical Director: Richard Baker
Choreographer: Lizzi Gee
Producer: Regan De Winter Williams Productions
Box Office: 020 7702 2789
Booking Link: https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/511-the-pirates-of-penzance
Booking Until: 16 March 2019