The Pirates of Penzance - Wilton's Music Hall, 11 April 2010
The USP of this show is an all-male cast, the tittersome possibilities of which are exploited to the max by increasing the the Major General's complement of daughters from four to an improbable ten or so strapping specimens. They are mercifully wig and makeup-free (the fresh-faced cast also double up as pirates and, with moustaches on sticks, as policemen). The effect is more public school end of term play than drag act. Only the turbanned and mascara-ed Ruth (Samuel J Holmes) edges closer to panto dame territory.
The main characters are given such wonderful tunes they're beyond reproach. But if there's one thing that can suck the air from any conventional production, it's the tedious maidenly simpering of the daughters, the only inherently unfunny characters in the opera. So to replace the weakest link in the show is a masterstroke. The lols gush forth like election promises at a party conference. The fluting falsetto singing is uncannily girlish, entirely uncamp. Mabel (Alan Richardson) even manages the coloratura as written.
The production is simply designed - a few tea crates and plain white costumes - but perked up by some clever lighting, including a final torchlit raid on the Major General's house which spreads the cast out through the auditorium.
By theatrical standards the musical side is pretty impressive, but it lacks the refinement of Sir Charles Mackerras and then some. Instead of a band there's unfancy but unflagging piano accompaniment from Chris Mundy. I would guess only Russell Whitehead (the dutiful Frederic) has had proper voice training. His attractive light tenor is well-projected and his diction is clear.
The others all have pleasant voices and manage the basics like singing in tune and in time, but I suspect they're more used to amplification, because they rarely rose above speaking volume. It wasn't always a problem, but even in the modestly-sized Wilton's with nothing but a piano to battle, some of the words disappeared. I was lucky to be sitting near the front because the performers were often just a few feet away. As soon as they scooted upstage though it was a strain to hear.
So while I'd recommend it wholeheartedly as theatre, there are some reservations on the musical side.
Seating is unreserved, so I suggest getting there when the doors open (half an hour before the show) and bagging a seat upfront if you're going.