All-Male H.M.S. Pinafore
Saturday 30th April 2016
There’s a tradition, particularly in British schools, of same-sex productions of the works of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
Generations of boys and girls have blasted out “Three little maids,” “A policeman’s lot,” and “I’m called little buttercup” in school gymnasia, village halls and scout huts over the years.
But Sasha Reagan and the team at the Union Theatre in London’s Southwark have taken this concept and, over the past decade or so, refined it into a unique art form.
To date, they’ve produced all-male versions of The Mikado, Iolanthe The Pirates of Penzance and – now- of HMS Pinafore.
The production, this time, takes place in the bowels of a warship in World War II, meaning that, for the first time this viewer recalls, the all-male aspect is not simply accepted, but justified as the piece is turned, effectively, into a play-within-a-play. A step which, whilst it adds a touch of nostalgic melancholy – the sailors, awaiting battles that they may not survive, removed from their loved ones, and reliant on each other to a level that breaks down the traditional British reserve – isn’t entirely necessary.
For the piece – as written, and as often performed – is a joyous marshmallow of romance, humour, arch campness and pure out-and-out silliness, the romance at its heart one of purity and innocence. But sometimes, the silliness of the plot is allowed to overshadow the genuine feelings in the text and music, and the fact that all the parts are performed, here, by men, runs the risk of making this another example of frivolity at the expense of feelings.
But once the novelty has been registered, the casting becomes almost irrelevant, and the piece is actually, and rarely, allowed room to have genuine feelings.
It’s, put simply, a great show, performed with passion and obvious joy by a great cast, under a creative team that obviously want to do more than just “Shove on some campery and count the takings.”
The first act is filled with highlights, the tunes coming one after another at such speed that it feels like a G&S Greatest hits show, and Ben Irish as Josephine stands out, transitioning – with nothing more than body language and a minor costume/prop effect -from a young sailor into a soprano heroine easily and beautifully. Only one of the top notes was missed in his performance, but the braveness with which he attempted the ascent was greeted with a resounding round of applause on the Saturday night at Hackney Empire.
Tom Senior, Neil Moors and Michael Burgen as Ralph Rackstraw, Captain Corocran and Sir Joseph Porter (the latter displaying comedy skills and perfect timing that makes him well worth watching in future, the former displaying pecs, triceps and a tenor that also make him worth watching, but more closely, perhaps) are all brilliantly cast, but James Waud as Deadeye Dick has a hard time with a character who is nothing more than a pantomime baddy. That he still commands attention when all he has to work with is a fake hump, an eye patch and a West Country accent is a testament to his skills.
Senior’s opening number, in particular, “The nightingale sighed” is heartbreakingly pure in its execution and immediately banishes any suggestion that the night is fluff and camp. Here is real pathos and longing, and it’s a joy to behold.
The second act, however, wipes the floor with Act 1. It’s musically more cohesive, and the trio “Never Mind The Why And Wherefore” is performed with such perfect timing, and such brilliant, simple and effective choreography that I wanted to leap to my feet and demand an encore. Then I remembered I was at Hackney not La Scala, and that the cast probably wanted to get home, so I stayed put.
The piece is a feast for the ears, for lovers of theatre, and for anyone who enjoys seeing young men in their pants singing falsetto.
What’s not to like?
It’s touring, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Buy it here.