Matthew Gent and cast members in The Pirates of Penzance | Sydney Theatre (Pic: Tomasetti)

I bet Eric Idle thanks his lucky stars for Gilbert and Sullivan. If they hadn’t written all the clever light opera they did, he would have had to. Or someone would have had to. Because life, in the last century at least, would probably have been quite unbearable without them. In my mind’s eye, I imagine them as more contemporary Antipodeans, whose sense of naughtiness would qualify them as contributors to The Mavis Bramston Show, The Wharf Revue or The Chaser.

But how do you get late 19th century comic operas to curry favour with 21st century audiences? No, you don’t call Dick Tracy. You call Sasha Regan, the entrepreneurial young English theatre director. Team her with Ben De Wynter and you’ve got a couple of producers ready to take the world by storm. They’ve shown themselves to have something of a piratical attitude to theatre-making: Regan took it upon herself to convert a derelict paper warehouse into a theatre. Having attempted the impossible, she and the theatre have taken out a swag of awards, at home and abroad.

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The pair have now brought their version of Pirates of Penzance all the way from Southwark to Sydney via the Sydney Theatre Company, the destination that caps its Australian tour, through Canberra, Mt Gambier, Renmark, Adelaide, Perth and Wollongong. This is a real success story, since its first performance was under a railway arch playing to 50. So how come it’s come so far? What’s the secret? Well, I don’t think its giving too much away to reveal it has an all-male cast which, given there are so many female roles, is a novelty. The success of the show, to a pronounced degree, lies in this one innovative decision.

Of course, it could all come off as a low-grade gang or drag show, if not for the feminine finesse of these blokes and, especially, the incredible operatic falsetto of the leading “lady” Alan Richardson playing Mabel. Think Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and you’re in the ballpark. At times it’s hard not to entertain the possibility that he’s the world’s late, final, extra castrato.

While Richardson and the chorus of “female” singers vies to be the eighth wonder of the world, it’s young Frederic, The Pirate Apprentice (Matthew Gent), that gets the outright gong for vocal quality: range, flexibility, timbre and clarity; warm, rich, effortless and attractive.

Nic Gibney is a strong, characterful all-rounder as The Pirate King, a sharing comic flair as a strong suit with his lieutenant Samuel, played by Michael Burgen. Ironically, about the only bloke on stage who looks like he might interview well as a real pirate is playing a Sergeant Of Police (Adam Vaughan). He has the baritone to match his solid appearance.

Joseph Houston is Ruth, the pirate maid, whose attempted deception, perpetrated on the inexperienced Frederic was never going to work. Joseph may be a decent-looking chap, but he makes a drop-dead ugly woman of a certain age. Neil Moors is Major-General Stanley and, while sporting an opulent tone, seemed to be a little lack-lustre in the diction department here and there. (This wasn’t helped by the sound, which seemed distant and faint at times.) But, like the rest of the cast, a highly accomplished actor.

The gaggle of girls (including Dale Page as Kate, Stewart Charlesworth as Edith, Lee Greenaway as Connie, and Chris Theo Cook as Isabel) that but runs fear and fantasise (or both at once) running into pirates are brilliant, taking off young women (of G&S’s day, anyway) but taking on every comical, effeminate nuance you can imagine. The ensemble of handlebar moustachioed men, officers, gentlemen and assorted others are all worthy cast members in their own right, too, each contributing comic flecks which enhance the fabric of the production.

Lizzi Gee’s choreography is sensationally good, being, as it is, so sympathetically in-tune with Gilbert’s mischievous book. Michael England’s musical supervision is also beautifully judged and who needs an orchestra when one man can bang a box so expertly? Designer Robyn Wilson-Owen has kept both set and costumes dead simple: a few see-through mobile clouds and a small arrangement of boxy wooden structures does the trick, insofar as connoting the open sea and creaking vessels. For the ladies, long, lacy white dresses. For the pirates, unbuttoned shirts, wide belts and scabbards, in which are stowed the most rustic of fake knives. Lighting designer Steve Miller uses a rainbow of washes (that I could have lived without) but comes into his own with some clever scenes with torches and faux candles.

I adored and applaud how Regan has used the wings and aisles of Sydney Theatre as an extension of the stage. Her energy, inventiveness and imagination gives these pirates the kind of unflagging impetus we’ve come to expect from Depp, Rush and co. I raise my Jolly Roger in honour of The Pirates Of Penzance. It is the very model of a modern presentation of G&S.

The details: The Pirates Of Penzance plays Sydney Theatre until November 24. Tickets on the STC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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