Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore, or The Lass That Loved A Sailor, proved an instant success when it opened at London’s Opera Comique theatre in 1878, giving the creators their first bona fide world-wide hit.
In fact such was the pulling power of this tune-filled, easy to follow story of a sailor who falls in love with his captain’s daughter, that by the time it opened in New York the following year, it barely ran a month before ticket sales tailed off, as numerous unlicensed productions had already played across the US eating up the potential audience.
This new and extremely inventive all-male (yes, that’s what I said) production which has opened at The Hackney Empire, plays until February 23rd then tours to Eastbourne, Nottingham, Croydon, Exeter, Buxton, Coventry, and Guildford, before finishing up in Winchester in the second week of May, and is in fact a revival – after a very short time away – of a production which opened on 30th October 2013, in Waterloo’s Union Theatre, where it was hot on the heels of the same team’s award-winning Pirates of Penzance from 2010.
The concept is simple, and clever in its simplicity. The action takes place in the hold of a World War II battleship, and to pass the time the ratings below deck use whatever they have to hand to fashion the props and costumes for the show, the male sailors playing both the male and female parts.
I can only presume that the show has been re-imagined by director, Sasha Regan – who also co-produces- and choreographer, Lizzie Gee, as there’s hardly a moment when the finely drilled and, it must be said, finely muscled cast aren’t making full use of the stage.
The female characters are suggested, rather than costumed, but such is the beautiful sound of the altos and countertenors, and the skill of the actors concerned, that it never feels as if the subtlety of the music has been sacrificed in the casting.
Of the principals, Neil Moore as Captain Corcoran in captivating and hugely physical in what I think is the best reading of the part I’ve ever seen. He makes the man human, and immensely likeable.
Likewise Alex Weatherhill who, as Buttercup, has not only got the comic timing and deftness of touch to make the woman he’s singing believable, but also a purity of tone to make listening a joy.
Keith Jack as Ralph Rackstraw, the lowly Jack Tar who falls in love with the captain’s daughter, has a very pleasant tenor, and his role benefits, as does the production as a whole, in being acted with a winning physicality.
The undoubted heroine of Act Two, however, is Alan Richardson as Josephine whose heady soprano had me on the edge of my seat during ‘The hours creep on apace’ willing him to hit the high notes at the end of the song. Needless to say, he scaled the heights with a bravura performance, and received a very well deserved ovation.
Rounding off the principals as Cousin Hebe is Richard Russell-Edwards who through Sasha Regan’s wonderfully inventive direction is able to bring back a weight to the part which suffers slightly from having been edited down in the original 1878 production.
Overall the cast is superb and save for the mugging and overplaying of the actor taking the role of Sir Joseph Porter – who will remain nameless – wholly believable.
In fact, my only gripe about this otherwise astonishing production was that the fantastic head of steam which had been built up in the first half hour, in no small part due to Lizzi Gee’s semaphore-like choreography – which put me in mind of Javier De Fruitos’s work currently on show over at The Shaftesbury in From Here To Eternity – was almost completely dissipated by the entrance of Sir Joseph Porter, which was a real shame.
Overall, a must-see which I hope will find a welcoming audience on its forthcoming tour.