What could be more cheering in 2020 than to be back in a theatre at Christmas? A jolly bit of Gilbert and Sullivan is what. This all-male Pirates of Penzance has been about the world and now drops anchor, for two nights only, at the Palace Theatre. It is lively and inventive, with a slightly chaotic, rough and ready vibe that is quite refreshing on a West End stage.
Rather surprisingly though, I found myself wishing that I had seen the production at the Union Theatre rather than in the splendour of the Palace Theatre. Though the acoustics can be unpredictable at the Union Theatre, there is a something very invigorating about proximity to the action in that small space. Here, everything felt a bit remote, even though we were seated towards the front of the stalls. Although everything was audible, there were problems of intelligibility with a lot of the lyrics, which of course is quite a serious problem when you are trying to enjoy Gilbert’s wonderful rhymes and follow a convoluted plot.
Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the jaunty choreography and daft fight scenes, involving tiny swords and people standing on each other. In the props department buckets were put to good use, and the constabulary was well endowed with twirly ‘taches. The Major General’s broomstick horse was a star in its own right, and Ruth’s attempt to ride it, unexpectedly funny. Ruth’s glow-up, from whinging panto dame to fierce queen was another delight.
So what of the business of having a single sex cast? It certainly didn’t detract, but nor did it add very much. The ‘girls’ got a laugh at their first entrance, but after that the cross-dressing became a bit of a non-event. Perhaps, like porn on a young man’s mind, an excess of RuPaul’s Drag Race has desensitised me to the simple pleasure of a man in an ill-fitting dress. Curiously enough, given that the gender of the cast is such a notable feature of the show, the production felt distinctly sexless.
At the time of writing, London theatres are closing again, just as they were getting back into their stride. Who knows when they may open again, but for me, and the rest of that elated audience at the Palace Theatre, the Pirates will have been the perfect theatrical shot in the arm.
Written by: W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by: Sasha Regan
Produced by: Sasha Regan and Ben De Wynter
This play has completed its current live run, but will be available to stream between 28 December and 3 January. Details can be found via the link below.