After a rare misstep last year with the irretrievably dated Broadway musical Camelot, the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park bounces back with a nicely updated British classic, HMS Pinafore.
While Camelot came from 1960 and seemed positively antique, HMS Pinafore - originally premiered in 1878 - is both timeless and yet firmly anchored by its social satire of Victorian society and values. Gilbert and Sullivan's fourth collaboration but their first blockbuster hit, it is a class comedy revolving around status of birth and office, setting up a convoluted plot about accidents of both that are dizzyingly crossed by love.
When Ralph Rackstraw, a humble foremast hand on the HMS Pinafore, falls in love with the captain's daughter Josephine, it emerges that her father has other plans for her: to marry her off to Sir Joseph Porter, the Cabinet Minister who is ruler of the Queen's navy, despite never having been to sea. Sir Joseph duly arrives to claim his future bride, but finds her somewhat reluctant. Perhaps, he wonders, she is intimidated by his exalted status. He warns her not to be: "Love is a platform on which all ranks meet". In fact, in G&S's typically class-breaking, topsy-turvy world view, this deeply moral message unwittingly clears the way for her to put aside her class anxieties about reciprocating the humble sailor's love.
The Open Air's artistic director Ian Talbot (Olivier-nominated for his staging of The Pirates of Penzance in the park in 2000) clearly loves the genre, and his company is in top form here. While Open Air musical productions can sometimes be compromised by the necessity to cross-cast with the two Shakespeare plays that the acting ensemble also perform in the season, there are some solid musical talents on board this good ship Pinafore (though interestingly, at least three members of the Shakespeare company with recent musical theatre credentials to their names - Simon Day, Daniel Flynn and Harriet Thorpe - are in fact not employed here).
But with Desmond Barrit (growing both in stature and girth as musical performer since his appearance in last summer's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the National) as the irresistibly pompous Sir Joseph and Hal Fowler as the ship's captain, the show is led from the front by two actors that perform equally well in Shakespeare and musical comedy. There are also strong contributions from musical veteran Gary Wilmot in the newly enlarged role of Dick Deadeye, a seaman who acts as a kind of social commentator; the vivacious Scarlett Strallen as the captain's daughter; and Lesley Nicol as Little Buttercup who sells her wares (probably in every sense) on board the ship.
Paul Farnsworth's irresistibly colourful costumes and stunning set make this summer romp easy on the eyes, while Catherine Jayes' expert musical direction makes it easy on the ears.
An evening in Regent's Park can be as English and delightful as afternoon tea and scones or corgis and monarchs, and this production succeeds in confirming G&S amongst those combinations that are the essence of both.
- Mark Shenton