Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas have such an enduring appeal that they have been produced in many different ways throughout the years. From modern day adaptations to school productions, pieces like The Mikado or H.M.S. Pinafore have been done and redone, reinventing themselves, endlessly. This time, the well known story of romance and class difference is set in World War II, and it is played by an all-male cast.
Sasha Regan – who also directed the all-male version of Pirates of Penzance – draws inspiration from single-sex schools in the UK, where works by Gilbert and Sullivan were usually produced by the children. It also draws inspiration from some prisoners of war during World War II who did all-male productions of these works while in captivity. And if we add to these the tradition of male-only theatre performance that goes back to Shakespeare, there is an ongoing tradition of single-sex theatre and musical theatre productions, particularly in the UK. What we see on stage is a bunch of sailors that put up a show, playing all roles and, basically, having a great time.
With a very effective use of a rather simple set and a few props, the crew aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore deliver two hours of pure entertainment. Energetically directed and with infectious and all-round hilarious choreography by Lizzi Gee, the comedic elements of the piece are highlighted beautifully and to great effect. The simple transformations from male to female characters are also great in their simplicity. Music Director, Richard Bates accompanies with expertise in this piano-only version of the score, while directing with precision and expressiveness.
The whole cast displays a fantastic, infectious energy. Ensemble numbers like ‘We sail the ocean blue’ and ‘Sir Joseph’s barge is seen’ sound great and look even better with their perfectly executed choreography and comedic timing. The female characters – Josephine, Little Buttercup, Hebe and the chorus of relatives – are played with a slight touch of panto but also with a surprising depth, particularly in the case of Josephine and Buttercup. Ben Irish plays and sings Josephine with tenderness and innocence, displaying an unexpected range of emotions and singing impressively. David McKechnie’s Buttercup is slapstickly brilliant, forcing innuendos with the Captain. Neil Moors’ Captain Corcoran gave possibly the best vocal performance of the evening together with Irish’s, displaying a rich and powerful voice that complemented his wonderfully hilarious acting. Loving sailor Ralph Rackstraw is also effectively played by Tom Senior, whilst Michael Burgen was funnily ridiculous as pretentious Sir Joseph Porter.
Light entertainment at its funniest, this all-male H.M.S. Pinafore will make you laugh several times but, most importantly, will keep you smiling throughout. The story has been told a thousand times, and we are more than used to men in women’s clothes in theatre, but this production makes the most of it and accomplishes two hours of uncompromising, uncomplicated and ultimately satisfying fun.
HMS Pinafore is playing at Hackney Empire until May 1, as part of their UK Tour. For more information and tickets, see The All Male HMS website.
Photo: Francis Loney