Opera + Classical Music Reviews

H.M.S. Pinafore @ Hackney Empire, London

14 – 23 February 2014

Sasha Regan has directed around half a dozen all-male Gilbert and Sullivan productions over recent years, with each starting life in her own Union Theatre in Southwark. This excellent ‘under the arches’ venue has an intimate, and slightly rough and ready, feel that only makes it all the more thrilling a place in which to witness the slickest of performances

Her 2013 production of H.M.S. Pinafore is not the first to have gone on to other places, and it survives the transition to a larger venue and proscenium stage well. This is partly because the Hackney Empire has plenty of charm in itself, but also because an appropriate sense of inventiveness is still brought to the staging. Such innovation only flourishes when the underlying approach is Spartan to begin with, and here, excepting a few lines played on the recorder on stage, a single keyboard is the only instrument of the evening.

The production is set in the hold of a World War II battleship. With the overture revealing everyday life below deck, and the sailors settling back into their bunks at the end, it really feels as if the intervening drama has plucked them out of their daily routine and thrust them into an extraordinary adventure.

From the moment that ‘We sail the ocean blue’ begins, the trimness of Lizzie Gee’s choreography shines through. It features rows of sailors indulging in exercises, acrobatics and somersaults, while Captain Corcoran’s ‘I am the Captain of the Pinafore’ sees the soloist and chorus skip with ropes as they sing.

The standard costume for most performers is vest and shorts. These are then added to, with anything from life-jackets to tiny bonnets, to mark out the different characters. In this way, there is a sense in which we are being introduced to the protagonists one by one. Quite deliberately, when Buttercup first appears it is not obvious that Alex Weatherhill is portraying a woman until he has his accessories and make-up applied and starts to sing.

The fluid set-up and dynamic choreography also enable performers to swap parts during numbers, so that throughout ‘Sir Joseph’s barge is seen’ different numbers of singers assume the roles of male and female chorus. The standard of chorus singing is very high, and it may be that as Regan’s all-male productions have attracted attention over time the number of men auditioning has grown, thus raising the overall level of the cast. All of the women’s parts are sung at the correct female pitch, and the chorus bring out the various harmonies to great effect.

Alan Richardson as Josephine and Alex Weatherhill as Buttercup put in very strong performances: Weatherhill’s smooth sound combines with an effective motherly persona, while Richardson hits great heights with his vibrant, ringing voice. As Ralph Rackstraw, Keith Jack’s acting is slightly less convincing but he displays a strong tenor voice, while Neil Moors proves an excellent all round singer and actor as Captain Corcoran. Finally, David McKechnie demonstrates great understanding of the ‘classical’ Gilbert and Sullivan acting style in his priceless turn as Sir Joseph Porter.

After its current run at the Hackney Empire, Sasha Regan’s all-male H.M.S. Pinafore tours the United Kingdom until 10 May. For details of venues and dates visit hmspinaforetour.com

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H.M.S. Pinafore @ Hackney Empire, London