The Pirate Queen Rachel Tucker (Grace O’Malley) and Matt Pagan (Donal) Photo: Earl Carpenter
Venue: London Coliseum
Performance Date: 23 February 2020
Reviewer: Leyla Demirel
Star Rating: ★★★★
Set in the glorious venue of London Coliseum, the beautiful and epic musical The Pirate Queen unfolds for one night only as West End royalty delivers a star-studded charity gala performance with all proceeds going to Leukaemia UK.
Based on the real-life story of history’s Grace O’Malley – an Irish Chieftain and notorious pirate, The Pirate Queen has no shortage of feisty and fierce female characters. From the writers of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, the show combines beautiful storytelling with a signature Boublil and Schönberg sweepingly emotive score.
From the moment the orchestra (beautifully led by Julian Kelly) delivers the first note, Boublil and Schönberg’s style is evident. The music and lyrics feel very similar to those that make Les Misérables and Miss Saigon such iconic musicals, with the songs flowing seamlessly from one to the next. The beauty of the songs helps to tell the powerful story of Grace O’Malley who lives in a highly patriarchal society, where women are expected to make homes and rear children. Grace defies all convention, fighting for equality and to be respected as men are while encouraging other women to do the same. The show has a bit of everything timeless history, a love story, Irish tradition (dancing included) set against the backdrop of some fantastic ballads.
Even with being staged in a concert setting as opposed to a full musical, the performances from the cast are spectacular and perfectly capture the emotions so deeply written into the lyrics. The concert setting also allows for no set distractions, meaning the words being sung can be properly taken in. The songs are powerful and despite the show being sung through with little to no dialogue, the plot is clear and easy to follow.
West End and Broadway stalwart, Rachel Tucker portrays Grace and her transformation and character development over the course of the show is mesmerising. Tucker beautifully handles Grace’s evolution from the young and idealistic aspiring sailor to the mature and stoic woman she becomes thanks to the challenges she faces. Her on-stage chemistry with Jai McDowell who takes on the role of Tiernan, Grace’s love interest, feels genuine and believable. The love ballads the couple share, including If I Said I Loved You only serve to reinforce the authenticity.
The theme of female solidarity is prevalent throughout the piece and showcases at length the coming together and strength of women. Despite appearing at odds, the principal characters of Grace and Queen Elizabeth I, played wonderfully by Hannah Waddingham are not as different as they initially appear. Both highly principled, strong and trailblazers of their time it’s no coincidence that they are portrayed by two absolute powerhouses of musical theatre. Their duet Woman to Woman is beautiful, and in a world where women are often criticised for tearing each other down, a moment where two strong women put their differences aside to make peace feels very fitting and poignant.
The pace of the piece is solid with no one scene lingering for too long. Every character has their moment to tell their story, but not so much that the action begins to stale. Whilst the solos and duets are emotive, the strength of the full cast numbers are equally impressive with the rousing energy and power behind every lyric.
This energy is matched through the delivery of Jack Ludwig’s choreography, which incorporates some tricky Irish dancing. Having genuine dancing from where the show is set felt special and was heart-warming to watch.
The costumes, hired from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, are stunning in every sense. The rugged sailor costumes to the more rigid costumes for the scenes with Queen Elizabeth, including her own Elizabethan gown, add authenticity, compliment the piece magnificently and are beautiful.
The Pirate Queen does have a somewhat traditional feel to it, which is unsurprising considering the creative team behind it. Whilst this may be some theatre fans’ dream of a show, those looking for something more contemporary and less of an emotional journey may find that this is not the musical for them.
For a one-off concert musical, this show feels special. It pulls on the heartstrings and encourages and promotes strength, resilience, and fighting for what is right. With a timeless story and a classically timeless score, this is a musical that while gone from the stage, for now, will not be forgotten any time soon.