A whirling waterspout of social class, patriotism and forbidden love leaps from the ocean this spring in the form of Sasha Regan’s all male production of H. M. S. Pinafore. Cleverly played out by a group of wartime soldiers at leisure, this continually celebrated classic from Gilbert & Sullivan has weathered the last 138 years due to its universally accessible humour and plot combined with its cheerful, tinkling music. You’d be forgiven for presuming that this audacious remodelling would burst with unnecessary homosexual innuendo and stereotype caricatures, but this sublime reinvention remains true to its original characters with a conviction and respect that is enchanting.
Off the coast of Portsmouth, the war ship H. M. S. Pinafore rolls lazily in the waves as a stout woman called Buttercup climbs aboard to sell supplies to the crew. She soon learns that Josephine, the daughter of the ship’s Captain Corcoran, is considering a marriage proposal from the wealthy Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. However, Josephine’s affections lie elsewhere: with the ship’s best sailor Ralph Rackstraw. They cannot marry due to their differences in station and Josephine regretfully rejects his confession of love. As the young lovers pluck up the courage to flee the ship together, Corcoran begins wooing Sir Joseph on his daughter’s behalf to unite their families in aristocratic matrimony.
To take the simple musical style of an operetta that enjoyed its heyday three generations ago and haul it effectively into the present day is a success of mammoth proportions. Sasha Regan’s slick direction fuels the scenes with bubbling energy while Lizzi Gee’s clockwork choreography sees the cast whizzing about the stage in sheer mechanical perfection. The costumes are minimal, little more than vests, trousers, some cleverly positioned headwear and draped fisherman’s nets. Doing away with the otherwise distracting embroidery, petticoats and parasols favoured by many G&S productions, this focuses the audience’s attention directly on the acting abilities of the performers. The plot is whipped forward with an impressive and consistent pace by the entire cast, whose collective stamina and connection to one another keep the audience riveted throughout. The melting pot of voices makes for some truly spine tingling moments with a fantastic balance of both rumbling bass and warbling soprano. At the centre of the action, Tom Senior’s Ralph oozes with charming chivalry and his voice soars unfalteringly in every musical number. Neil Moors and Michael Burgen work fantastically as Corcoran and Sir Joseph respectively with a shared comic intuition that delights at every turn. The shining star of this performance is Ben Irish who, as Josephine, conveys feminine poise and proud refinement with believable subtlety. His crystalline falsetto takes flight with enviable freedom and almost breaks free, right through the roof of the auditorium.
Quite simply, this reinvention of H. M. S. Pinafore is a delight to behold. Its clean simplicity and inoffensive humour make for a surprisingly welcome change from the tiresome and often self-aggrandising search for depth and originality that has become so prevalent in the world of theatre. With enough catchy tunes to see you through the week and an endlessly charming cast, you’d be a fool to miss this show when it docks in your town.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Photo: Francis Loney
HMS PINAFORE plays at Hackney Empire until 1 May 2016