There is not much time to catch this show as it comes to the end of a tour that began in the middle of April. That ornate Edwardian music hall, the Hackney Empire, is a fitting location for the final dates, and I would urge you to go if you can. The show is, of course, “infernal nonsense”, as Major-General Stanley says of the operetta HMS Pinafore, which was staged the year before The Pirates of Penzance. But the cast are zestful, the singing is superlative, the choreography is inventive, and the accompaniment, by David Griffiths on the piano, is as good as an orchestra.
Sir Arthur Sullivan could certainly compose a good tune, while W.S. Gilbert was a wizard with the lyrics. You don’t have to be an aficionado of their works to enjoy this production, even if you miss some of the words. That is certainly likely to happen with the famous tongue-twister I am the very model of a modern Major General, which includes the disparaging reference to Pinafore, as well as mathematical and classical allusions that some of us may have to look up Wikipedia in order to understand. Very memorable too is the song With cat-like tread upon our prey we steal, which ends with the refrain Come, friends who plough the sea, truce to navigation, take another station. This refrain was taken up by the supporters of a Belfast football club, substituting the words Here, here, the Blues are here, where the hell is Celtic, where the hell is Celtic? – which illustrates the universality of the appeal that Sullivan’s music has for people of all classes.
Apart from its technical excellence, what transforms this production into a very special one is the fact that all the cast are men. Men pretending to be women are always likely to be funny, and with half the characters in the operetta being female, the opportunities for humour are multiplied. The cast carry it off brilliantly, reaching high notes both in the music and in the exploitation of the roles adopted by them. Altogether an evening of sheer pleasure awaits if you get on the Overground to Hackney Central.