Fred Broom, Russell Whitehead, Adam Ellis, Samuel J Holmes, Alan Winner, Michael Burgen, Adam Lewis Ford, Dieter Thomas, Stewart Charlesworth, Lee Greenaway, Benjamin James, Daniel Maguire, Adam Black, Lewis Barnshaw, Frank Simms, Raymond Tait, Brandon Whittle
In theatre, it doesn’t always pay to play the same trick twice.
But, as this Union Theatre production of The Pirates of Penzance proves, when that ‘trick’ happens to the correct one, it can even work to try it for a third time.
This is because over recent years the venue has ‘specialised’ in staging all-male productions of popular Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, with HMS Pinafore appearing in 2007 and The Mikado last year.
To be sure, the plot of Pirates isn’t quite as convoluted, or half as clever, as that of The Mikado but, in this context, it possesses one important advantage. In telling of the hero Frederic’s dilemmas as he is torn between the love of his life, Mabel, and showing loyalty to the pirates he is bound to, it features two male choruses, with policemen also entering the drama in the second act.
So, with the usual female chorus, we witness the trebling up of parts, and this furnishes the production with a strong air of the ‘public school revue’ that only adds to its charm.
The dancing is slick, and the staging clever as the policemen pursue the pirates behind the audience in the compact theatre. It is particularly fun to contrast the ‘core’ female chorus who are dressed up to the nines in pretty frocks, and the ‘extra’ female chorus, who only appear when the pirates aren’t required and whose hairy chests and close cropped hair are all too obvious. Nevertheless, it is only amusing because it works, with both groups throwing themselves so completely into playing the squealing wards of Major General Stanley.
But the abundance of fun to be had does not overshadow the strong singing and exceptional performances on offer. Fred Broom, who has appeared in the group Four Poofs and a Piano on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, demonstrates a sound grasp of ‘Gilbertian’ acting principles in the role of the Major General, and his performance would feel up to the grade on the stage of the D’Oyly Carte. Russell Whitehead is a suitably dashing and feeling Frederic, whilst the only failing of Samuel J Holmes as Ruth is to (once again, since he played Katisha in The Mikado last year) appear too attractive for the ageing hag he is supposed to be! Adam Ellis is also outstanding as he sings the part of Mabel full voice at the correct soprano pitch, never once resorting to falsetto.
If, however, the chorus as a whole excels in hitting the high notes, it conversely struggles with the policemen’s low ones, and resorts to speaking one passage that is really a chant of deep bass notes. Similarly, though the policemen’s curly moustaches on sticks successfully become a comical prop in their dances, their costumes of white shirt and trousers feel rather out of place. We really need the boys in blue.
Nevertheless, the highs in this production by far outweigh the lows, and though there is much fun to be had in the abundance of campness, colour and charm on offer, the performances of Broom, Whitehead and Ellis, amongst others, are also there to be appreciated for their true worth.