Things seldom what they seem

Show 'em how: Neil Moors as Captain Corcoran of H.M.S.Pinafore, crew in attendance

HMS Pinafore

University of Warwick Arts Centre

****

Is staging HMS Pinafore (aka: The lass that loved a sailor) with an all-male cast a bit like mounting King Lear with an all-female line-up?

Well, a male Ophelia or Gertrude didn’t bother Shakespeare; these days it’s the sort of thing Deborah Warner or Fiona Shaw wouldn’t bat an eyelid at. If Helen Mirren can pull off a passable Prospero, why not a bloke as Little Buttercup?

Alex Weatherill’s tenderly simpering Buttercup, who reveals at the end her (his) ghastly faux pas (nurse abuse) which brings about a happy ending to this potpourri of Gilbertian nonsense, is one of the many treasures in this production. It’s winning and winsome in ever so many respects, even if it just lacks that National Theatre or Donmar finesse and quality one might hope for.

Actually, what it misses is that Ivor Novello touch. Can you imagine the funnels and turrets, elaborate catwalks, elegant gubbins-filled bridge, camp officers’ uniforms, cabins furnished in floral bad taste, nimbly shinned-up ladders he might have deployed? Witness the fabulous steam liner set of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes at the Kilworth House Theatre near Lutterworth recently.

This Pinafore – the ship - consists of no more than a cluster of bunk beds, sometimes very cleverly used in Sasha Regan’s chaps-all production, but making for very dull visuals (Ryan Dawson Laight, the designer, doesn’t seem to have been awarded a ripping budget; or was it sketched on the back of a napkin at Kettner’s or some Soho dive?).  

Yet here, it’s what the eager, splendidly-marshalled cast does with it that matters. And they are a very, very nimble lot indeed. Almost half of them play girls, as once the mothers and the aunts turn up we find ourselves with a 50 per cent handbag crew. Except that instead of flowery hats and prim umbrellas, we get some very tight-fitting short shorts, elegant legs and brilliantly feminine twirlings. Brilliant, because the cast, and Regan as director, elects not to opt for camp: instead of mere send-up, she embraces you with something one could virtually dub beautiful: it’s funny, but also touching, and affecting, and yes, marvellously moving.

Shortest of the shorts are reserved for a delicious performer, Richard Russell Edwards, who was the original Hebe in the original 2013 London production. He’s a rather shy sailor at the start, emerging only gradually almost, thence nearly to steal the show. His tender, caring persona elegance is winning; again, no undue camp, just a heartwarming affectionate femininity. He’s one of the niftiest acrobats, swinging from top to bottom bunk with an eye-catching archness. It’s/she’s/he’s quite a tour-de-force.

Alan Richardson (top left) as a divine Josephine who finally gets her man. Picture: Jane Hobson

Alex Weatherill’s homely Buttercup, made up like a charlady but quietly the soul – or heart - of the mixed-up storyline, has her (his) own line in knowing innocence. When at the end we find that good sturdy, sterling Ralph Rackstraw is really of blue blood (the idea of captain’s blood doesn’t quite work at the dénouement), you get the feeling that clever Buttercup might actually steer a straighter course on the bridge than him. But this was ‘Poor little Buttercup’, sung with such a touchingly muted (possibly untrained?) male alto it melted you there and then.  Not just another super performance; but a deceptively shrewd one too.

Yet you can’t say that these had the monopoly on poignancy. For nothing matched up to Alan Richardson’s quite extraordinary performance as the about-to-be-wed-but-actually-in-love-with- the-jack-tar, Josephine. Exquisitely demure, so sweet and pretty and honest, desirably tactile, the ultimate little-boy-(or –girl)-lost, Richardson often enough makes one almost cry, such was the tangible innocence. He has an utterly lovely voice, soaring quite fabulously way up above the average countertenor, and so beautifully shy and soft in texture you might think it/her akin to one of Handel’s gentler castrati.

As a character, Josephine has lots of balls, finding ways to escape the clutches of the famously dire Sir Joseph Porter (David McKechnie, who sang it in the original and the deftness of whose scrupulously rehearsed moves, pipe in hand or no, almost outshone the lot of them). Time and again, it was the tiny touches in Regan’s staging that tickled one’s fancy, as well as the increasingly stylish, to the point set pieces from an adroit and clever crew.

Neil Moors won our attention early on with some nice turns as the about-to-be-demoted/humiliated skipper (‘I am the Captain of the Pinafore’, with admirably butch chorus, certainly one of the evening’s hits). Aidan Crowley was fun as the manipulative, rather nasty Dick Deadeye, though his witless gesturing looks as amateurish as his speaking was excellent. There were times, one must admit, when it was difficult to decide if this show was an instance of outstanding amateur or genuine professional. They did everything so well, and yet the concept slightly lacked beef.      

That Sasha Regan came to this idea, as she tells us in a rather wonderful preface in the programme, from playing boy roles and boy leads herself in umpteen school plays, rather feistily one would guess. She brings that same commitment to this show, so that while odd moments threaten bathos, it never actually befalls.

This bizarre, intoxicating jamboree keeps on the road very impressively, with individuals in the ensemble given quite distinct roles, even if they where they fall back on hack repeat gestures they might usefully (like dirty Dick) have been tweaked directorially for more variety. Agile they certainly were. At least half the ensemble was in the original last autumn. It shows. Number after number was – dancewise – spot on.

David McKechnie as the deliciously odious but endlessly entertaining Sir Joseph Porter

There was no tinpot piped orchestra. The person providing the dance was the pianist, who supplied all the goods with splendid polish without ever overbearing. Michael England is credited as Music Supervisor and Richard Bates as Musical Director, so maybe one of them put the cast through its singing paces onstage and one plays; or they elegantly and idiomatically alternate.

The problem for me is that very idiom. Catchy though it is, Pinafore may not be Gilbert’s best script, yet the keyboard as always (with opera too) reveals almost more than an orchestra does. Time and again one is, or I am, disappointed – let down - by the paucity of Sullivan’s musical ideas (remember, he was a pretty fine classical composer in other mode); the shallowness of his bass line; the wetness of a musical style that goes little further than his predecessors, Barnett and Balfe. It doesn’t make for dramatic power; it makes for triteness.

When one thinks of composers like Julius Benedict, a Weber pupil, who was working in England at the time, or MacFarren, or Sterndale Bennett, one wonders what they might have done with the material; arguably Sullivan, bar those few thumping, inimitable good tunes, doesn’t stand up that well. But then that is what Sullivan fans the world over would probably tell you is its charm: the simplicity, the innocent charm, the plinky-plonk cheerfulness, and doubtless the memorability of the vocal line (‘Three little girls from school’, ‘I am the very model of a modern major-general’, etc.). But the point is made very well in the film Topsy-Turvy: it was not, in essence, the music Sullivan wanted to be writing; more the music Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Richard D’Oyly-Carte – or a good income - wanted him to. 

Perhaps it doesn’t matter a hoot here. The cast sang with such aplomb - most of them very good voices, ever bit as spirited as their acting. In its own way, it was an (aptly) b(u)oyant, generally scintillating show. All those sexy aunts…..pheeouw! The controlled sequence in which they all revert, donning uniform at the end to being naval ratings once more (was this only a sex-starved chaps’ dream?) – a mirror image, one realises, of their initial unclothing which one only partly understood at the time - supplied one of the most moving touches among many fine details dotted around. With those few reservations, super acting, super show.

Roderic Dunnett 

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