Sailors on a boat often have to find a way to pass the time – there are only so many hornpipes that you can dance after all. There is also a very strict hierarchy aboard ship which W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan used to their advantage in their comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. The show has been a great favourite since being first performed in 1878. The latest version of the show has stopped off at the Hackney Empire on its UK tour and I popped onto the poop deck to see it last night.
Set as a play within a play, H.M.S. Pinafore is the story of a group of sailors aboard the ship sitting around trying to find something to do. One of the sailors, Ralph Rackstraw (Tom Senior) is more upset than the rest. He is a handsome young man who is hopelessly in love. This would not normally be a problem but the object of Ralph’s affections is Josephine (Ben Irish), the only daughter of the ship’s master Captain Corcoran (Neil Moors). Even allowing for the difference in social rank between Ralph and Josephine, there is another hurdle stopping the path of true love running smoothly and that is First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter K.C.B (Michael Burgen) who has also set his sights on marrying the fair Josephine. The two young star crossed lovers decide to run away together but their plans are overheard by the dastardly Dick Deadeye (James Waud) who tells the Captain of Ralph and Josephine’s plans. Can true love win out or will Sir Joseph win the lady? Can the secret kept by the fair Little Buttercup (David McKechnie) prove to be the key needed to ensure a happy ending for all?
Now, you may have noticed something slightly unusual in the above paragraph. Yes, all of the cast members I mentioned had male names. That wasn’t a typo, this version of H.M.S. Pinafore does have an all male cast, 16 of them if you are counting – and I did. So, not only Josephine and Buttercup but all of Sir Joseph’s admiring crowd of sisters, cousins and aunts are played by strapping young men. Surprisingly, this arrangement works really well producing a highly comical and entertaining show, though it is a bit disconcerting the first time a very muscular Josephine sings in a superb soprano voice. Director Sasha Regan has kept the set very simple – with three bunk beds and a rope substituting for every location on-board ship – and musical accompaniment is provided by single piano who’s ivories are expertly tinkered with by MD Richard Bates. Taking everything down to this simplistic level gives the audience a chance to really appreciate the G&S’s lovely story and the words of the various songs which are delivered by the entire cast with a wonderful clarity. The story itself is really a mickey-take about social standing in the late 1800’s and is a wonderful side-swipe at the social mores of the day, and its popularity is easy to understand – though funnily enough it isn’t one of my favourite G&S works.
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There are many elements to like about this production of H.M.S. Pinafore from the highly talented cast, especially Tom Senior who has a really fantastic singing voice to the simple but engaging setting. There is a real joie de vivre about the whole production that really comes across and infects the entire audience with its exuberance and they responded accordingly to the action on the stage.
All in all, this production of H.M.S. Pinafore is really good fun and a superb staging of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous works. The tour continues until the end of July and I would recommend you go see it if you fancy a really enjoyable night enjoying the finest of comic operas.
Review by Terry Eastham
Sasha Regan returns with another of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular operas, the wonderful HMS Pinafore. This follows her hugely successful all-male production of The Pirates of Penzance, which wowed fans and critics at Cate Blanchett’s Sydney Theatre and won Best Off West End Production. HMS Pinafore’s infectious tunes and beautifully constructed libretto are a perfect match for Sasha’s inimitable style; fresh, fast, inventive and fun.
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