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HMS Pinafore

The Union Theatre's latest all-male Gilbert and Sullivan revival struggles to match the impact of its forebears

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
HMS Pinafore company
© Darren Bell

Sasha Regan's all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan have been as thrilling and revelatory as Edward Hall's Shakespeares for his all-male Propeller touring company.

But, as with Propeller, the idea might just be starting to wear a bit thin; or perhaps just over-worked and over-familiar. There's certainly not quite the same amount of sustained brio and joyful, delicious merriment in this Pinafore as there was in The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and even (God give us) Patience.

This is due partly to the drab below decks setting of mobile bunks where the sweaty sailors are discovered in grubby white t-shirts, grey beanies and black doc martens; and partly, to vocal strain in one or two of the leads, and too many flat passages of dialogue.

For sure, nothing lives up to the opening number, "We sail the ocean blue," done as a physical training work-out led by a whistle-blowing Captain Corcoran (a lean, moustachioed, fit-looking Benjamin Vivian-Jones), and full of press-ups, muscle-flexing poses, regimented square-bashing and even clumping over each other's prostrate hind-quarters.

This delightful choreography is the work of Lizzi Gee, and she springs more surprises when the same butch (well, fairly butch) crew of blokes comes shimmying back on, eyes and shoulders a-flutter, as Sir Joseph Porter's train of sisters, cousins and aunts, agog for grog and an eyeful of matelot; as this naval paragon, Porter, David McKechnie is a hard-working buffoon in red nose, blue rosette and sock suspenders.

The classic set-up is of forbidden love across the class divide – Tom Senior's Ralph Rackstraw, blessed with a nice, parched tenor voice but tarred as a tar with lowly social status, has fallen for the Captain's daughter, Josephine (thinly played and sung by Bex Roberts) – and of social and political preferment in the navy.

Chipping in from the sidelines are the distinctly underwhelming sweet little Buttercup, aka Mrs Cripps, the bum-boat woman, of apple-cheeked Ciarán O'Driscoll – he can't master the contralto register – and the equally bland, hunch-backed villain, Dick Deadeye ("It's a beast of a name, ain't it?"), of Lee Van Geleen.

The Act One finale, with its meshing of themes and complex rhythmical structure is a mini-masterpiece, and well discharged, even if the always reliable musical director Chris Mundy sounds seriously over-worked at his piano in the corner. For the first time in these stripped-back G and S's, I craved a few more instruments.

And the second act unravels with its barmy bombshells of switched babies and true inheritance at a more accelerated pace... but I miss an element of swirling delirium in "Never mind the why and wherefore," and the night-time "Carefully on tiptoe stealing" through a darkened auditorium, voices literally breathing down your neck in the tiny space, sacrifices punch and focus for "environmental" effect.