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HMS Pinafore

By • West End
WOS Rating:
Martin Duncan's ultimately sparkling revival of D'Oyly Carte's 1994 production starts rather flatly. The male ensemble seem distinctly ill at ease with Lindsay Dolan's cutely camp choreography and Alison Rae Jones' Josephine sounds disturbingly strangulated. However, the company soon settles down, particularly so with Sam Kelly's entrance as Sir Joseph Porter, 'Ruler of the Queen's Navee'. Kelly manages to capture exactly the style and mood of the production.

And what a debt is due to Joe Papp's revamp of The Pirates of Penzance two decades ago. The jokes are there, the ensemble move around the stage, and there's more than one knowing wink to the audience. In other words, nobody treats this HMS Pinafore over seriously, thus preserving and reinforcing the jokes. How different from the way G &S was presented for much of the last century.

W S Gilbert's gentle-but-sharp dig at Victorian class attitudes and the superficiality of rank and fortune still hits the mark. Set to Sullivan's annoyingly hummable patter songs, the show manages to provide a delightful evening. Gilbert famously plagiarised himself and so themes, characters and lines from previous work constantly reappear. this Pinafore 's popularity is well deserved for it contains some of Gilbert's most clever sallies of wit and some of Sullivan's most charming melodies. Moreover, the librettist's satire on matters nautical and the composer's parody of "sea music" can be as well appreciated and enjoyed now as ever.

Believe it or not, the character of Sir Joseph Porter, was actually based on WH Smith (founder of the retail book outlets) who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, famously hated ships. Sir Joseph is thus portrayed as a confirmed landlubber: 'Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip/ That they took me into the partnership. / And that junior partnership, I ween, / Was the only ship that I ever had seen!'

In this production, the absurd tale of romance above and below decks is played out against Tim Hatley's pretty azure set, reminiscent of the Busby Berkley shipboard musical numbers of the 1930s, and for the most part, the cast respond to the director's light touch. To be truthful, D'Oyle Carte has never been renowned for its acting skills, but Della Jones proves yet again that she's not only one of the country's leading mezzo-sopranos but a great comedienne with her broad, blowsy Welsh portrait of as Buttercup.

Joseph Shovelton as Ralph brings his melodious tenor to bear and tweets prettily with Alison Rae Jones while Gareth Jones as Dick Deadeye is suitably lugubrious. Above all, though, this is Sam Kelly's night. In a role long consigned to comic actors rather than trained singers, Kelly never seems out of place, moves and singspiels effortlessly, and steals the show.

- Stephen Gilchrist


Note: The following review dates from February 2000 and an earlier run of this production at the Savoy Theatre.

If Gilbert and Sullivan were alive today, they'd probably be writing a comic opera about the imbroglio surrounding London mayoral candidates Dobbo and Red Ken - at least that's if the level of political satire in HMS Pinafore is anything to go by.

Behind the 1878 tale of a mismatched shipboard romance, there lies some trenchant commentary about class-ridden Victorian society, where politicians often achieved high office via patronage and privilege, rather than on merit.

Chief target is the aloof Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, a parody of real-life Victorian bigwig WH Smith (of bookstore fame), who became 'ruler of the Queen's Navee' without ever having set foot onboard a naval vessel.

Porter (played with hilarious bewilderment by Sam Kelley) arrives on the Pinafore to wed the daughter of Captain Corcoran (Tom McVeigh), not realising that the fair Josephine (Yvonne Barclay) has already promised herself to an ordinary seaman, Ralph (Joseph Shovelton).

In the belief that Josephine is daunted by his exalted rank, Porter tells her that, 'love is a platform on which all ranks meet' which, ironically, helps Ralph's case further. The lovers attempt to elope, but lugubrious seaman Dick Deadeye (Martin Nelson) spills the beans and Ralph is thrown in the brig. Suddenly it's left to 'red, round and rosy' bumboat lady, Little Buttercup (Jill Pert) to save the day with a vital piece of information...

Sir Arthur Sullivan's music makes for some enjoyably catchy songs, even if some of WS Gilbert's lyrics sound quaint, verbose (who'd rhyme 'celerity' and 'asperity' nowadays?) and unashamedly jingoistic.

Yet director Martin Duncan - of the National Theatre of Brent - manages to keep this two-hour production appealingly contemporary and accessible. Tim Hatley's Busby Berkley-ish quarter deck is a fine setting for both the comic performances (Kelly in a notably good 'Monarch of the Sea' routine) and the camp ones (the ensemble of a dozen jolly tars). The voices are top notch too, especially soprano Barclay, baritone McVeigh, and the full-throated mezzo Ms Pert. The only weak link seems to be the unimaginative, slightly undisciplined choreography that accompanies the action.

With Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy reawakening interest in all things G&S, the D'Oyly Carte couldn't have picked a better moment to launch HMS Pinafore. Maybe it's now time to see this quintessentially English brand of opera revived on an even bigger scale.

Richard Forrest


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