May & Alia Do Pirates (of Penzance)

May & Alia Do Pirates (of Penzance)
Written and performed by May Jasper and Alia Vryens; ‘adapted’ from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. La Mama Courthouse, Carlton (VIC) June 18-29.

The joint creators of this very entertaining, thoroughly nutty show, May Jasper and Alia Vryrens, note in the program that ‘fourteen-year-old-frustrated-at-the-back-of-the-chorus dreams can come true’. 

Maybe this isn’t quite the dream as they dreamed it, but it’s more fun.  Although it undoubtedly helps and doubles the fun if you are familiar with Pirates of Penzance, it is not essential.  There are just the two women on stage (at first), in 19th century pirate/sailor outfits (apt costumes by Megan Williams), plus a suitcase of the most rudimentary props.

Not only do these two women (plus some sock puppets and a broomstick), play and sing all the parts (with some ‘interpretative’ additions), they also condense, elucidate and send up gutless the Pirates of Penzance ridiculous plot.  The songs for which the show is remembered are there, although in truncated form: I Am a Pirate King, Modern Major-General, A Policeman’s Lot etc.  But Ms Jasper and Ms Vryens also take the delicious liberty of introducing Mabel and the other ‘orphan girls’ in the style of the Andrews Sisters (or two of them), complete with 1940s choreography. 

No one is safe here, including Celine Dion, who gets the perspective she deserves.  The Taran-tara police song involves audience participation and, later in the show, the well-known trio – but here performed, obviously, by two as three – involves a frantic switching of hats by the two women with each other and the broomstick adorned with a big moustache.  This is a virtuoso turn – the fumbling, the feigned panic and breathlessness are all beautifully controlled.

These comediennes are unlikely performers who have exploited that unlikelihood into two distinct but engaging comedic personas.  In the tradition of clowning double acts, Ms Jasper is ‘serious’, even pedagogic, but wanting-to-be-liked and not too humourless, while Ms Vryens is ‘naughty’, subversive, selfish and possesses the most expressive deadpan face you may ever see. 

They arrive on stage only to ‘discover’ that the rest of the cast has not shown up – because Ms Vryens has neglected to tell them they should.  After some fitting recriminations, they convince themselves they can do it alone.  Ms Jasper ‘explains’ the plot, allowing its absurdities to speak for themselves. 

Their musical sound system (an ancient cassette tape player) soon breaks down, but I won’t spoil the gag by revealing what they do about that.  The genuine musical talent of the evening is with Ms Jasper and Ms Vryens: both can sing very well indeed, proving yet again that you have to be very good to entertain an audience by being bad. 

When you look at Ms Jasper and Ms Vyrens’ credits – and those of their director, Eva Johnson – the quality of the show is no surprise.  This lot has been doing comedy and cabaret for years.

May & Alia Do Pirates runs just over an hour, is part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, and just one of the festival shows at the La Mama Courthouse.  The space has been reconfigured into ‘night club’ mode, with small tables and chairs, and there’s a modified liquor licence so you can drink while you watch the show – that is, while discovering two talented people and hooting at what’s on stage.

Michael Brindley

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