This is Sasha Regan’s All-Male Production of H.M.S. Pinafore, so Gilbert and Sullivan purists be warned. The conceit is that the production is being staged in the hold of a World War II battleship as the men are passing the time and letting off steam. The programme notes testify that this did indeed happen, with reminiscences and photographs from wartime productions.
The trick works perfectly – as we enter the auditorium we hear the creaking sounds of a ship at sea and a couple of seamen are lounging on metal bunks, reading or just idly passing time. Gradually the stage fills with crew members and more larking around ensues during the overture before the bunks are pushed back and the first of many dazzling and athletic dance routines begins – outstanding choreography throughout by Lizzi Gee. The transition from sailor to performer is done subtly and we are willing the singers on from the outset, particularly those aiming for the unforgiving high notes demanded by Sullivan’s music.
The show is full of energy, joie de vivre and hilarity throughout. There is great inventiveness in the use of materials and bits of costume that might be at hand to set the scene – the uses for a piece of ship’s rope are apparently endless; at one point the chorus switches from male to female by the judicious addition or removal of a beanie hat or silk scarf. All the big numbers (I am the Captain of the Pinafore, I am the monarch of the sea, He is an Englishman) are delivered with gusto and imagination and you can happily play ‘spot the movie reference’ – my favourite was Chariots of Fire when I swear Vangelis found his way into the score.
The main theme of the show is true love thwarted by barriers of class, as the captain’s daughter, Josephine, played by Ben Irish, is in love with Ralph Rackstraw (Tom Senior) and he returns her love, but it is doomed because of the difference in their social rank. He declares his love, she refuses as she cannot marry beneath her station, whereupon he determines to kill himself, apparently by walking the plank. At the last moment she stops him and the lovers seek to make their escape.
To complicate matters further, Josephine’s hand in marriage is desired by Sir Joseph Porter, the ‘ruler of the Queen’s navy’, much to the delight of her father Captain Corcoran (Neil Moors). The resolution of this tangled web will be familiar to G&S fans, and probably won’t be a great surprise to anyone, but it is delightfully done, including a night time pursuit scene where you may find a crew member popping up Right Behind You.
The Hackney Empire is an Edwardian masterpiece and a traditional rendering of the work would fit perfectly here, but the ingenuity of this production is that it will work just as well whether in a traditional or a more modern auditorium. The set and lighting are minimal but very effective – in one scene Sir Joseph Porter demonstrates his power by extinguishing them with a few clicks of his fingers.
Amid the comedy and fun, the love story is actually affecting, particularly thanks to Ben Irish as Josephine. As Ralph Rackstraw, Tom Senior’s voice, though tuneful enough, was lacking in power and variety, but we did believe in his love for Josephine. The stand-out performance of the show was from David McKechnie as Little Buttercup – the application and removal of her makeup mark the beginning and end of the show – he coped brilliantly with the vocal demands and managed to combine comedy with pathos. As the men gradually removed their makeup and returned to being sailors there was a final poignancy as we remembered that they were going back to the real work of war.
The show is touring nationally until 23rd July.