The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence starts as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Of course, this is rubbish. Men – or more importantly people – are not created equal. Where and to whom you are born will often set the path for your life to come and nowhere was this truer than in the English class system of the 1800s. A theme which is central to the plot of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at the King’s Head Theatre.
H.M.S. Pinafore is a submarine in the Royal Navy. It is commanded by the urbane Captain Corcoran (Matthew Palmer/Matthew Siveter) a man assured of his place in the world as indeed are those below decks – Able Seamen Rackstraw (Philip Lee), Bobstay (Hannah Crerar) and Dick Deadeye (Matthew Kellett). However, whilst the gap between high and low born is maintained for the most part, there is a threat to the status quo occasioned by the fact that Ralph Rackstraw has, against every code known to man, fallen in love with the Captain’s daughter – Josephine (Alys Roberts). Given their difference in social rank, Rackstraw must keep his love secret. Particularly as the Captain has other plans for his daughter, wanting her to be married to the Right Honourable Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty (Joseph Shovelton). In fact, Sir Joseph is due to visit the ship this very day, accompanied by both his sister and cousin (Hebe – Catrine Kirkman), to aid his plight to betroth Josephine. Is it possible to stop the wedding of Joseph and Josephine so that the latter can be with Ralph? The answer to that little conundrum may rest with Portsmouth bumboat woman Little Buttercup (Jennie Jacobs).
One of the many things I love about Charles Court Opera is the way they can distill the essence of a story and using a small cast and fixed set, present an opera that is of an extremely high standard. And, once again, they have exercised their talents and produced a really fun and enjoyable version of H.M.S. Pinafore that delivers the story of the hypocrisy of rank in a non-subtle but highly entertaining two-hour show.
As with much of G&S, the story seems quite simple but in actuality is a fantastic reflection of society in the Victorian era. So you have Sir Joseph, worming his way up the greasy pole to head the navy with no qualifications and now in a position to inform the world that “A British sailor is any man’s equal” – except his own. Josephine ready to marry for duty rather than love and Ralph, contemplating suicide rather than be without the woman he loves. All of these characters with their various personal traits are brought to life expertly by Shovelton, Roberts and Lee. I do feel sorry for Josephine. She really doesn’t seem to have too great a time in the show and on the whole has some melancholy old tunes to sing. But Alys Roberts looks and sounds just right and you can understand why Ralph falls for her.
Director John Savournin has worked out every comedic moment in the show and brings them out in grand style. This is especially true during ‘Now Give Three Cheers” which elicited a lot of uproarious laughter from the audience. Rachel Szmukler’s very colourful set takes us into a genuine yellow submarine. My one concern – and this is me as an ex-member of HM forces being extremely pedantic – were the uniforms for Capt Corcoran and Sir Joseph, which bore no relation to the rank of the characters and was an unfortunate anomy in my eyes. However, if the only thing I can criticise is an incorrect uniform then you get a good idea of how great the show itself is.
As a study of the Victorian obsession with class, H.M.S. Pinafore is an excellent production and the story of love among the classes still feels as relevant today as it did when first produced back in 1878.
Review by Terry Eastham
H.M.S. Pinafore is set on board a strictly hierarchical naval ship and satirises the rigid British class system. Josephine, the Captain’s daughter has fallen in love with a lowly sailor, Ralph Rackstraw, despite being promised to the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Wednesday 10 April – Saturday 11 May 2019