HMS Pinafore review

Review: HMS Pinafore, English National Opera

Review: HMS Pinafore, English National Opera

“Enormous fun” – Jenny Booth’s review of HMS Pinafore at The Coliseum. 


HMS Pinafore is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s shortest and jolliest operettas. Its farcical plot lampoons jingoism, excessive class-consciousness and the over-promotion of idiotic, time-serving politicians. Somehow, director Cal McCrystal has had no difficulty finding contemporary parallels. His frothy and colourful production for English National Opera stays true to the 1878 text without taking it too seriously, and keeps the audience chuckling with a scattergun barrage of modern gags and allusions, culminating in a model of Boris Johnson falling into the sea from a broken zipwire.

A lot of attention before opening night focused on how much of a gamble McCrystal had taken by casting Les Dennis in the key role of Sir Joseph Porter. It’s a large singing part, and there were a couple of nervous moments as Dennis’s voice got into its stride. But we needn’t have worried. Dennis is a trouper with 50 years’ experience in showbiz, and he rises majestically to the part, pompously imposing crackpot ideas on everyone else without applying them to himself. As Dennis says in a knowing aside: “I’m an opera singer now.”

ALL IMAGES: © Marc Brenner

There is huge talent in the show. Pinafore specialist John Savournin is particularly splendid as Captain Corcoran, shepherding the audience briskly through the daft plot with an air of John Cleese, flashing toothy smiles and rolling lugubrious eyes. Alexandra Oomens (Josephine) stands out for her very fine soprano voice and bouncy flirtiness, like a young Barbara Windsor; while her fellow young lover Elgon Llyr Thomas (Ralph Rackstraw) has deadpan comic timing and conveys the absurdities inflicted on his character. Baroque contralto Hilary Summers brings class, stature and a credible West country accent to the part of Little Buttercup. Rufus Bateman, the cute and talented eight-year-old son of choreographer Lizzi Gee, is anarchic and impish in the expanded role of Midshipmite. 

Above all, this production is enormous fun. McCrystal ensures it cracks along at a great pace, always with something new to marvel or chuckle at, from the sparkling acrobatics of Spencer Darlaston-Jones to the sly introduction of Vogue-ing, flossing and Gangnam style into the dance routines. Potential pitfalls, like a modern audience’s reaction to 19th Century notions of Britishness, were adroitly avoided. An already excellent show would be even better if some of the more extraneous gags could be pruned – the antics of doddery Aunt Minje became distracting, for example; and if the chorus of sailors and Sir Joseph’s sisters, cousins and aunts could enlarge their acting, as sometimes the comedy failed to make it far enough over the footlights. Thoroughly recommended. 

HMS Pinafore runs at the London Coliseum from 29 October to 11 December.

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