An award-winning production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance that’s already taken London by storm has now set sail for Australia, with a Sydney season coming up next week.

This is a largely faithful staging of the 1879 comic opera, directed by Sasha Regan, but for one fact; all of the production’s female characters are played by male actors. We spoke to actor Alan Richardson, who plays leading lady Mabel, during the show’s recent Perth run, about how Aussies were taking to the all-male cast.

“We’ve been really well received across Australia; we’ve been really lucky. We’d already performed seasons of the show in about four different venues in London, and the reception is different each time. You learn a hell of a lot about yourself as a performer, and about the piece itself, with each new audience,” Richardson said.

Of course, there is a certain connectedness between British and Australian senses of humour – both countries have a long and healthy tradition of men frocking up for comic effect.

“We have got very similar sensibilities. There’s a Britishness that carries really well across to Australia that’s helped us connect with audiences here.”

Having said that, Richardson was keen to point out that this production of Pirates doesn’t try to rival Priscilla in the drag stakes.

“It’s very much in the spirit of an all-boys boarding school putting on a play. It’s that kind of biscuit box, Brylcreem look. There’s no updating of the text or costume, and there’s no real camping up of anything – no lashes or wigs or anything like that. It’s just boys who happen to be wearing dresses and singing girl parts,” he explained.

Richardson, who graduated from Surrey’s Guildford School of Acting, had previously performed in Pirates as part of his course. In an odd twist of fate, the role he’d played in school was that of the Major-General Stanley, Mabel’s father.

“I remember seeing the girl playing Mabel and thinking it was such an awesome part – I never really imagined I’d get to play it though!”

Once he did land the role, the challenge was on for Richardson to ground his character in reality – albeit the heightened, slightly ridiculous reality that Gilbert & Sullivan have created.

“It’s a funny one, because you do want to think about it in terms of the character you’re playing, not just ‘I’m playing a woman’. You could take it to a level of caricature and just flounce around in a corset, but this show is not over the top.”

And while he said he hadn’t drawn from any real-life females in creating his character, it seems some of his loved ones may say differently.

“I’ve done another all-male production called Iolanthe, and friends came to see it and said I reminded them of my mother. So whether or not I’m trying to emulate anyone, it seems I might accidentally channel my mother at times…”

INFO: The Pirates of Penzance, November 8-24, Sydney Theatre. www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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