Wilton's Music Hall, London E1
Opened 13 April, 2010

There is obviously going to be a fair amount of campery to an all-male production of this Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, but I honestly don't think I've ever seen quite such a gathering of boy-totty on a single stage. The pirates swashbuckle on to the stage, shirts open to the waist, like a bumper boyband; the stage is awash with tasty seamen. A few minutes later, enter the Major-General's daughters... and, aside from bodices and skirts, it's another boyband: no wigs, make-up or attempts to make the performers look like women, these are simply young men playing female roles. In Act Two, even wearing Gallagher Brothers eyebrows and sporting huge cut-out moustaches on sticks as the Cornish constabulary, they are still above all cute. It is all rather disconcerting.
After its initial run at the tiny Union Theatre last year, Sasha Regan's production won the What's On Stage award for best off-West End production, and now it luxuriates in an East End transfer. (Wilton's apparently did present G&S evenings in its original 19th-century incarnation, but these were composed of excerpts rather than complete single works.) Despite the wealth of young beefcake, it is immensely charming: fully as playful as you would expect, but rather than broad travesty there is something almost coy about the female performances. The falsetto voices are assured rather than parodic, with Alan Richardson as Mabel excelling in a pure, clear tone that only occasionally squeaks a little at the very topmost end of a coloratura run. Samuel J Holmes could have turned the plain, middle-aged nursemaid Ruth into a pantomime dame, but instead achieves all the effects he needs by ignoring the gender issue altogether.
Of the male roles, Fred Broom bumbles disarmingly as the Major-General, though his famous patter-song occasionally gallops away from him. (The acoustics of the space are for the most part fine, although occasionally solo vocals get lost or ensembles turn muddy when contending with simultaneously clumping feet.) Russell Whitehead as Frederic, the unwilling pirate apprentice, is chunkily affable, and Ricky Rojas is a Pirate King by way of Zorro – El Musical. It is an object lesson in the art of successful G&S: don't monkey around with the inherent silliness, instead take it seriously but not earnestly. A dozen or so pretty boys don't hurt either.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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