H.M.S. Pinafore – Comic opera in two acts to a libretto by W. S. Gilbert [additional material by Cal McCrystal and Toby Davies; sung in English with surtitles]
Mrs Cripps (Little Buttercup) – Hilary Summers
Ralph Rackstraw – Elgan Llŷr Thomas
Dick Deadeye – Henry Waddington
Captain Corcoran – John Savournin
Josephine – Alexandra Oomens
Sir Joseph Porter – Les Dennis
Hebe – Bethan Langford
Bill Bobstay – Marcus Farnsworth
Bob Becket – Ossian Huskinson
Tom Tucker (Midshipmite) – Rufus Bateman
Aunt Minje – Flick Ferdinando
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Cal McCrystal – Director
takis – Set & Costume design
Tim Mitchell – Lighting designer
Lizzi Gee – Choreography
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 29 October, 2021
Venue: The Coliseum, London
After a scripted welcome and introduction given by a black tail-suited John Savournin with occasional interjections by Les Dennis the Overture to this new staging (the company’s first) of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore commenced, characterised by piquant oboe playing and a welcome sense of fun and flexibility. The curtain rose to reveal the crew of the Pinafore energetically ‘polishing the handles’ of takis’s beautiful flexible set – one that by means of stage revolves allows effective transitions to the ship’s open spaces and her more intimate captain’s cabin. The stage was indeed set!
H.M.S. Pinafore was the first international success of the G&S partnership and, if its political and musical satire is more benign than some of its successors, there remains scope to play with it and find some modern nuance as the company has clearly found in rehearsal. Only the extreme Savoyard purists could object to some of Cal McCrystal and Toby Davies’s dialogue additions that help bring some of the minor characters into a little more focus, and the cast deftly deliver some great gags that play on Gilbert’s original dialogue with play on linguistic modernisms. The ‘society ballroom’ arrival announcements of Sir Joseph Porter’s female relatives, inclusive of some operatic witticisms, is a clever ‘Gilbertian’ interpolation. Some passages even take on a striking new force under McCrystal’s directions as well – Pinafore’s crew’s vehement enunciation of the word ‘attitude’ in the Finale of the First Act being an instance in point. The, to modern sensibilities, less appealing sides of Gilbert’s humour – particularly the strong whiff of turn of the 19th–20th century misogyny and caricature of the elderly female are not ignored either. Modern politics do appear.
The success of any G&S staging is much reliant on getting the words over the footlights clearly (surtitles can kill comedy) and the cast largely succeeds here. The two Corcorans are the exemplars – every word sung and spoken by Alexandra Oomens and John Savournin was crystal clear. Alexandra Oomens’s Josephine is a total delight; she relishes the sending up of operatic convention, and her solo number with its recitative is beguilingly sung and with disarming confidence (a shame that one visual gag was allowed to interrupt this most ‘operatic’ part of the score). Savournin was a suave Captain, teetering close to Basil Fawlty in some of his mannerisms, and managing to interact well with the ever-present alter-ego Tom Tucker, to deliver some memorable nods to past TV comedy. Mention should be made of Rufus Bateman’s amazingly confident performance as Tom; he steals Act Two’s opening routine totally. Hilary Summers’s Buttercup is full of charm, too, and she relishes the melodrama of her confession and shows deft ad-libbing when her bumboat seemingly hit choppy waters.
Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s Ralph Rackstraw was sung and acted rather seriously, bringing a contrast to his Josephine as well as the rather pantomime-baddie Dick Deadeye of Henry Waddington. The other named sailors, so important in the ‘A British tar is a soaring soul’ trio, are entrusted to Marcus Farnsworth and Ossian Huskinson who certainly deliver the goods vocally as well as choreographically – indeed, one wonders if tap dancing is now a requisite of operatic training!
There is sadly a ‘but’ to the evening. The introduction was clearly intended to ‘big-up’ the appearance of comedian Les Dennis, a performer with a creditable history of variety style performance, but, in some ways, it put the pressure on. On this opening night Dennis seemed a tad ‘at sea’, didn’t quite dominate proceedings as Sir Joseph should, and lacked sparkle in his dialogue and routines. His singing voice isn’t much either, sadly – it feels underpowered when compared to his company, and he struggles occasionally to get the words over. That said, with more performances under his belt he will find more to give and enjoy.
Chris Hopkins and the orchestra relish Sullivan’s catchy tunes and the additional hornpipe sequences – and show brilliant control of dynamic to allow all the percussive effects of Lizzy Gee’s exuberant choreography to make full impact. This is a feel-good show for difficult times, and it is good to see ENO blowing its trumpet so confidently!
Further performances on October 30 (mat and eve), November 6 (mat and eve), 7 (mat), 12, 14 (mat), 17, 18, 20 (mat), 27 (mat and eve), 30 and Dec 3, 6, 9, 11