I saw Mike Leigh's "The Pirates of Penzance" for the first time at the English National Opera almost two years ago and quite liked it. So, when I heard that Sasha Regan's version was coming to Wilton's Music Hall, I thought I'd go see how it compares. And I'm so happy I did. I loved it!
The female characters are played by men, and this is largely what makes this version so memorable. It just works perfectly to emphasise Gilbert and Sullivan’s already funny libretto and overly feminine females and masculine males.
The entire all-male cast is brilliant. To me, it was Alan Richardson as Ruth who stood out most. Her mouth says some things, while her face and body say something totally different. She is sensitive, ruthless and hilarious.
The audience followed along with ease and enthusiasm, captivated from beginning to the standing ovation at the end. By comparison, I felt that Mike Leigh’s more traditional version was harder for the modern audience to properly appreciate, as it should.
After the show, the energy of the happy crowd leaving the 160-year-old Wilton’s Music Hall made me wonder if this was what the original performances felt like, 140 years ago in New York.
Yes, The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York rather than London, which is odd, as Gilbert and Sullivan were Londoners and the script is very much British. There was quite a good reason for this. At the time, American law offered absolutely no copyright protection to foreigners. This lead to hundreds of American companies mounting unauthorised British productions that often took considerable liberties with the text and paid no royalties to the creators. Gilbert and Sullivan decided to open the production themselves on Broadway, and delay the publication of the score and libretto, so that others could not copy it. This was successful for about ten years, when they inevitably lost control of the copyrights again.