HMS Pinafore

  • Musical
  • By W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
  • Directed by Sasha Regan
  • Choreographer Lizzi Gee
  • Musical Director Richard Bates
  • Cast includes Tom Senior, Ben Irish, James Waud, Neil Moors, David McKechnie, Michael Burgen, Richard Russell Edwards, and Paul McDowell
  • Hackney Empire, London
  • Until 1 May 2016, then touring throughout England until 23 July
  • Review by Tom Aitken
  • 29 April 2016
HMS Pinafore
4.0Reviewer's Rating

An all male HMS Pinafore. What? Why?

This not-to-be missed production originated in 2014 and it is not entirely irrelevant that the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One was in the news.  But, as it happens, World War Two is more relevant. Sasha Regan and producer Ben de Wynter were thinking about men being incarcerated below deck in a warship awaiting a call to action, with time to think, write home and keep their minds away from the inevitable near future. ‘What better,’ they asked themselves, ‘than for them to derive distraction from two of Britain’s barmiest story-tellers, Gilbert and Sullivan!’

It follows that the setting for the entire show consists of three sets of bunks. These are put to sometimes astonishing uses. (And I’m not implying anything improper by that statement.)

If anything I have so far written seems to imply a production that is merely bizarre, think again. The singing, from soloists and chorus alike, is astonishingly good. I may have caught one or two not quite spot on high notes from Josephine and Little Buttercup and the chorus, but all these people can rise (ho! ho!) to the occasion.

More than that, however, must be said about the all male cast and its effect on the performance. HMS Pinafore is of course, about the class system of the mid-nineteenth century, and Gilbert used his topsy-turvy plot to point up the silliness of the social impossibility of a marriage between the daughter of a ship’s captain and a crewmember.

In all conventionally cast productions it is shown as rather foolishly comic that Josephine cannot marry Ralph Rackstraw. In this production (I’m not sure how it comes about, but it has something to do with the all-male casting) I felt simply outraged. I feel sure that at least some of what lies behind this is our current concern about the rights and wrongs (as some people perceive them) of same-sex marriage.

If only we could interview William Schwenck Gilbert on the subject! Sadly, he would probably disapprove

Thus we have a production that, although it is very funny from beginning to end, is also serious. Some moments that normally get an easy laugh are treated as real. The surprising thing is that this works. You find yourself thinking, ‘Well yes.’

One would also like to interview Sullivan about it. He was more of a man of the world than Gilbert and might therefore have seen the point more easily. Then again, he (the son of an Irish bandmaster) wanted to be upper class. He resented his need to descend to comic shows in order to pay for his taste in rich women and gambling on the Riviera.

But do not be misled into thinking that Pinafore has been perverted in order to make it more acceptably modern. An approach has been adopted and pushed for what it is worth, which turns out to be a great deal.

But that does not mean you will laugh less. The audience was in a state of hilarity throughout, because to most of us in the present day, the assumptions behind the Victorian class system are risible as they were to Gilbert. I would say that within the laughter, more complex and sad emotional responses were subsumed.

It is perhaps a pity that there is no orchestra to give us Sullivan’s colourful scoring (a solo piano sits in for them) –– but the singers perform miracles.

Part of this arises from the production’s pace. I am fairly sure that the production is swifter than normal by at least ten minutes.

Go! Enjoy!


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