Music and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by John Savournin
Music directed by David Eaton
Produced by Michelle Barnette for Charles Court Opera
10 April – 11 May 2019
One must approach a Gilbert and Sullivan production with a keen understanding of exactly what one is in for. In many ways, their operettas bridge the gap between a comic opera and what we think of as “modern” musical theatre. Often the principle reserve of the amateur theatrical society, the student musical ensemble, or unambitious independent theatre group, it is very easy to do a G&S production very poorly. Fortunately, Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the King’s Head Theatre is not an example of this.
Subtitled ‘the lass who loved a sailor’, H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story of the star-crossed lovers Ralph Rackstraw (Philip Lee), able seaman, and Josephine Corcoran (Alys Roberts), captain’s daughter. As with all Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the core themes revolve around class, duty, love and the comedy to be found in the intersection and conflict between the three. The narrative is familiar, unthreatening and concludes ludicrously. There is a sameness to many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas that leads me to forget which beginnings go with which endings, and which songs are present in which, and I have seen my fair share over the years. But every time I heard a familiar refrain strike up at the start of a song I was reminded of how enjoyable these productions can be when done as well as they are here, and I spent a vast majority of this show beaming widely at the ridiculous antics of the crew of the Pinafore and all they came into contact with.
Gaily rendered in bright, 1960s tones, replete with an interpretation of the Pinafore as nothing less than a yellow submarine, the set and costumes created by designer Rachel Szmukler were charming and effective. Clever use was made of the small space, and the low ceilings of the King’s Head make for a believably claustrophobic submarine, setting the stage for some truly excellent performances.
With a tight cast of eight and gender parity, it is hard to fault any of the performances given by the cast on the night. Particular mention must go to Joseph Shovelton’s Sir Joseph Porter, the perfect embodiment of the bombastic, patriarchal, British twit so familiar across Gilbert and Sullivan’s opuses, commanding attention in every scene in which he was present, and consistently eliciting laughs from the entire audience. Matthew Palmer’s Captain Corcoran (also played on alternating weeks by Matthew Siveter) was endearing and feckless as he was carried along by the nonsensical story and Jennie Jacobs doubling as Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph’s Sister was the master of the sideways glance to the audience and always a highlight. As excellent as all the performances were, the bravest and most effective choice was undoubtedly the casting of Sir Joseph’s Aunt, who was an absolute scene-stealer whenever she was present.
Accompanied only by musical director David Eaton on the keys, the music was tight and the harmonies flawless, as the cast fully embraced the operatic style that the show was written in, with no invasion of a more typical contemporary or “musical theatre” tone to the vocals.
Of course there are certain cringe-worthy moments that are borne of the dated mores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s era (though, admittedly, far fewer than are present in their other shows), particularly in reference to Little Buttercup’s “gypsy blood” and the apparent oracular abilities it gives her. The question must be asked whether anything would be lost from the original script for these references to be changed or omitted, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, though we are prepared to suffer much worse in other forms of historical popular culture.
For fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Charles Court Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore is unmissable, and for anyone who has never seen a G&S show, it is hard to imagine a more accessible introduction to the form. The production runs at the King’s Head Theatre until the 11th of May, and tickets are selling fast, so grab them before it ships out for good.
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