Ben Irish is currently playing Edith and understudying Mabel in the UK Tour of Sasha Regan’s all-male production of The Pirates Of Penzance.
Regan’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic musical comedy of mistaken identity was first staged at the Union Theatre in 2009 before touring the UK and Australia. Last year Ben appeared in Regan’s all-male production of HMS Pinafore which also toured the UK.
I recently spoke to Ben about what it’s like to work on an all-male production, channelling his inner Edith and why the role is such a technical challenge…
Last year you appeared in HMS Pinafore, so how did you feel when the chance came up to do The Pirates of Penzance? Did you jump at the opportunity?
Yes, definitely. I actually did pantomime over Christmas with one of the guys who did The Pirates of Penzance with the company before, when they did the Australia tour. I was the Prince and he was Dandini so we got quite close and both knew that The Pirates of Penzance was going to tour this year. We both had such great experiences with the all-male casts and thought it would have been great if we could both work with everyone again. Working with the guys and doing something which is pretty different to most other things and working with Sasha as a director is amazing. The whole team are really good and it’s a really creative process.
What is the atmosphere like on an all-male show?
Because it’s an all-boy cast there’s lots of silly jokes and boy-ish banter. There are a few people who have never done any all-male stuff before so they had the slight fear element at first. It’s quite technical, but this atmosphere is brilliant. I think doing a comedy helps, as well as having such a talented team – the cast are very strong singers, actors and dancers. Each person brings their own thing to it so everyone’s making suggestions and making each other laugh. Even though it’s very focussed, we’re all having a lot of fun.
Does Sasha keep you all in check?
She’s brilliant! Last year I remember thinking ‘Oh god, she’s going to be really scary’ [laughs]. Everyone was like ‘She’s lovely, but in the rehearsal room she knows what she wants’ and she does know what she wants, but she’s so good at listening to ideas from other people and trying to get the best out of you in a really nice way. She’s cast some people from last year’s HMS Pinafore and from the last time they did Pirates of Penzance and there are some newbies too. I think maybe it’s slightly more relaxed than last year because she knows exactly what everybody can do.
Ben & Dale Page in The Pirates of Penzance
How did you find your inner Edith?
[laughs] Vocally it’s a big challenge. Last year there was much more male singing on my track, but this time we only have the first scene on the pirate ship as guys and then I run off and have a quick change into a girl and then don’t leave the stage for the whole of act one. My track this year is also much higher vocally than what I did last time. I came into rehearsals after doing panto where I was just belting stuff like The Book of Mormon and it was very different [laughs]. It’s so different to being a top operatic soprano!
You must have to look after yourself?
At first I was really nervous and a bit scared and trying to protect my voice all the time, warming up and warming down because it’s such a big challenge. I cover Mabel as well and she sings up to a top D♭. I’ve been talking to a lot of girl performer friends and lots of them don’t even say they can sing a top C because they don’t want to go into a room and be told to do it. So it’s a big challenge, Sasha worked lots with me last year on how to do the whole girl thing which I’ve remembered lots of and brought to this. It is a different style, but it has helped a lot. Last year I was ensemble so it’s really nice to have a role this year. There are a few more moments where you can shine and all of four of us main boys who play the four sisters have all got very distinctive characters which makes it fun.
The Pirates of Penzance is a really fun show – it’s a classic Gilbert and Sullivan with lots of mistaken identity and so on. What can people expect?
They can expect to laugh a lot. It’s a comedy piece and written very, very well. What we found out last year was that a lot of people think they’re going to come along and see a bunch of camp guys running around in dresses or they think it’s going to be more like drag. It’s not at all like that; it’s very artistic and very stripped back with just a piano and no mics. It’s a classic piece and we’ve taken it back to how it would have been with guys taking on female roles as well. It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it respects the work. Everyone that came along last time said they were so surprised and wanted to get all their friends to come along and see it. People find it really impressive.
And then of course the music is incredible as well!
Yes! I’ve done the show before when I was seventeen at sixth form college. I was Pirate King, which is very different to Edith [laughs], but each time they start playing sections on the piano I still get excited about the music because I love it. It takes over you and you really feel it.
Do you enjoy touring life?
Last year we tested the water to see what works in what venues, and everywhere we went he had a positive reaction. We’re going back to Exeter which was one of my favourite venues last year because the audiences were absolutely electric every single night. I really enjoy going to different towns and seeing new places. I’m really glad that we’re going to a few different venues this year, some of the theatres are absolutely beautiful!
Right, I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Erm… just three?! Ok… I think… one I keep listening to at the moment is ‘Someday’ from Memphis. That’s constantly on play on my iPod at the minute. Something I haven’t listened to for ages, I would take ‘Chip on my Shoulder’ from Legally Blonde. It came on my iPod the other day and I was really happy. Erm… and… ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel – you can’t beat that! That song has good history with me so I would need it there with me.
Looking ahead, is there anything you have your eye on at the moment?
I’m very open minded to see what’s coming up. I’m under new representation so it’s all quite exciting at the moment. Unfortunately Mary Poppins is my dream show, and I took a holiday to Miami after panto and had a lovely, lovely time but missed all the casting for the new Mary Poppins tour. But it’s alright, it’s an amazing show and I’m sure it will come around again. I’m excited about the Mamma Mia UK Tour next year. There’s loads that I would love to do!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
The Pirates Of Penzance tours the UK until Sunday 28th June 2015.
Please visit www.piratesisback.com for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit 1: Jason Mitchell
Photo Credit 2&3: Kay Young