Saturday, 9 November 2013

Theatre review: H.M.S. Pinafore

Gilbert and Sullivan aren't among my theatrical must-sees; until now H.M.S. Pinafore existed for me only as a handy distraction technique if Sideshow Bob's after you. But I've enjoyed Sasha Regan's recent revivals so this had to be worth a look. Regan's all-male productions are becoming a bit of an annual institution, but all-male G&S also finds an unlikely historical precedent in the Second World War, where POWs would put on operettas to keep themselves entertained in Stalag 383. So this latest production has a more rough-and-ready feel than usual, with a framing device that sees a group of captured airmen break into song in their bunk beds. Actually, the archive photos in the programme suggest the real POWs managed to get together costumes at least as elaborate at the Union's productions usually provide, but there's a layer of fun in having life-jackets and collars co-opted to suggest the women's dresses and brooches.

I'd heard H.M.S. Pinafore's plot was ludicrous even by G&S standards and I can't say I disagree (the man who ends up marrying his former wet-nurse is a creepy development on all sorts of levels.) Essentially a satire on class, The H.M.S. Pinafore is commanded by exercise-mad Captain Corcoran (Benjamin-Vivian-Jones in pornographically-tight trackie bottoms,) who is hoping to marry his daughter Josephine off above their station to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph (David McKechnie.) But Josephine (Bex Roberts) actually has her sights set below-decks, on Able Seaman Ralph (Tom Senior.)

What puts me off G&S is how twee it can be, but these all-male versions add a bit of an edge that avoids that. Even more so here with the stripped-down aesthetic; often literally so, Regan clearly knowing a thing or two about her audience and so getting the actors playing women to strip down to white T-shirts and boxers with a life-jacket as a bustle or cape, and making sure the muscular Tom Senior just so happens to need to get changed onstage quite frequently. Although for once I was most interested in one of the more comfortably-upholstered members of the chorus, John Sandberg, so wasn't exactly disappointed when he ended up leaning against my leg in one scene.

I saw Pirates and Iolanthe once they'd transferred to Wilton's Music Hall, but this time I went to where the shows all originated, and what it loses in beautiful surroundings the show gains in intimacy in a thrust staging at the Union, awash with seamen. There's some strong singing voices, Roberts handling the falsetto particularly well, and some enthusiastic dance numbers (choreographed by Lizzi Gee.) One thing casting everyone as young servicemen in the framing device has meant, is that the ages of the characters they're playing in Pinafore aren't clear, which for me made the revelations at the end particularly nonsensical. But for the most part I still can't see Gilbert and Sullivan working better for me than they do here.

H.M.S. Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is booking until the 30th of November at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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