Pirates… But not as we know ‘em!

The operas of Gilbert & Sullivan are so awash with frivolity that the last thing they need, one would think, is a theatrical device making them more frivolous. But British director Sasha Regan believes otherwise. And she’s been touring the world with this production of Pirates of Penzance to prove it. All the roles – including the maiden daughters of Major-General Stanley – are played by men. The result is very, very silly, as G&S topsy-turvydom meets old-fashioned cross-dressing camp. 

Accompanied by sole pianist Michael England (who did not always rise to the occasion as the only vehicle for Arthur Sullivan’s sparkling score), the pirates first clamber onstage in what appears to be an entirely orthodox G&S production. In scene two, these same pirates are regarbed as picknicking maidens on the seaside, and the laughs start rolling in like so many breakers. This is a moment of high ridicule even in a co-ed Pirates; here, it’s utterly hilarious, with the male cast making rich mockery of girlish coyness. 

Musically, how do the men handle the heights of the female vocal parts? Well, a choir of falsettos sounds remarkably similar to the real thing. The solo roles, however, particularly that of Mabel, require coloratura deftness that the very funny Alan Richardson did not quite possess. I also wondered how audible the un-miked singers would have been at the back of the Sydney Theatre circle if we were struggling to hear them in row G. 

The Major-General, who delivers the most famous patter song in the repertory, is played totally straight – and to mesmerising effect – by Neal Moors. He shared the most applause with the strong-voiced Matthew Gent, who turned the slightly anodyne male lead Freddie into a real and likeable portrait of naivety. 

The dazzling comic choreography of Lizzi Gee impressed most of all, though, in what is ultimately a canonical reading of Pirates with one significant twist. I was left wondering if the cross-dressing delivers comically all that is displaced musically when males try to sing out of their range. Certainly, this is a production that puts the emphasis on Gilbert, rather than Sullivan, but its exuberance, giddy pleasure in the language of the text and sheer sense of fun make it very easy to enjoy.

Pirates of Penzance plays at Sydney Theatre until November 24. See event details here.