Despite my intense, non-ironic love for the American Musical, I have always found the very British Gilbert and Sullivan harder to get along with and regarded their work as something to respect rather than love. There was always something a bit too fussy and cutesy about it that made me long to go home and listen to some Sondheim. However, the colourful and zany productions by young chamber opera company Charles Court Opera, who have produced over 20 operas in five years and feature some of the most talented young professionals in the business, have helped to change that. Having now seen several operas in the intimate Rosemary Branch Theatre (a perfectly formed black box theatre above a pub that seats about 60), it seems the best place in the world to experience the genre, especially comic operas. There is something that makes the entire experience so much more all-encompassing by being so close to the proceedings.
Director John Savournin (who also lends his rich baritone voice to a pompous Captain Corcoran with a touch of childlike naïveté) certainly extracts the full comic potential from this tale of entertaining naval nonsense about class, camp sailors and accidents of birth, in which Captain Corcoran attempt to marry his daughter Josephine off to the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter KCB (a delightfully jaunty performance by Simon Masterton-Smith) is thwarted by her preference for lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw. Sir Joseph Porter’s entourage of sisters, cousins and aunts are de-pluralized for the simple reason that a whole gang of them wouldn’t fit on stage (keep an eye out for the aunt’s droll cameo). James Perkins designs with elegant economy with a few nautical props and Sullivan and Gilbert’s own faces in the sun and moon keeping a watchful eye on the action.
As the bumboat woman Little Buttercup, Rosie Strobel is a total delight with her powerful voice and expressive eyes in the way in which she manages to milk the sensuality of the role without sexing it up (subtle distinction). Georgia Ginsberg and David Menezes are both very winning and sing charmingly as star-crossed lovers Josephine and Ralph, perhaps the hardest roles to make an impact in amongst all the clowning. The cast are supported by the four hands of Wigmore Hall piano duo David Eaton and James Young, who play with exuberance and sensitivity.
I can’t help wondering if you’re supposed to question or even notice the inconsistencies in the plot: Ralph Rackstraw can’t be that young a lover if he’s Josephine’s father’s age and is it supposed to be at all creepy that Captain Corcoran in his reduced circumstances finds solace in the arms of his former foster mother? Probably not. The idea of Gilbert and Sullivan with the subtext laid bare is not a particularly appealing thought. This has to be a case of accepting the ‘topsy-turvydom’ for what it is.
A merrier, more beautifully sung show in London would be hard to find. I would particularly recommend it to anyone who is feeling a little disillusioned as it would be very difficult indeed to leave without succumbing to the infectious charms of this compact and uproarious production. Take along all your sisters, cousins and aunts (and all other friends and relations).
HMS Pinafore plays at The Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington until September 19th 2010. For more details and to book tickets, please visit http://www.rosemarybranch.co.uk/. For further information about Charles Court Opera, please visit http://www.charlescourtopera.mfbiz.com/