Last Updated on October 30, 2021
ENO’s Pinafore is Shipshape and Bristol Fashion!
Along with latin and rugger, cross-dressing at my prep school in the early 1970s seemed to be compulsory. Some of my happiest days were spent dressed in a frock and bonnet, caked in pancake makeup, singing my heart out as one of the Three Little Maids in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Mikado or as a sister, cousin or aunt in their nautical jape, HMS Pinafore. Those tunes and the satirical humour are etched into both my and the national psyche, setting a template for the comic patter song that has never been surpassed. Now I’m happy to be back with a review of English National Opera’s Pinafore – their first-ever production of this G&S classic.
Director Cal McCrystal is rightly regarded as the go-to-director for comedy with credits including the Paddington movies and the theatrical smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors. He is making a return to the English National Opera, after the critical success of his production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, as director for the company’s brand new production of HMS Pinafore. McCrystal is a gag-a-minute man and may offend some G&S purists with his addition of comic characters such as the cabin boy and the addition of a prologue with its nod to Morecambe and Wise. However, our press night audience lapped up the slapstick comedy and the broader and often camp appeal that McCrystal brings. The casting of comedian Les Dennis as Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty may also raise some fusty eyebrows, but it might just help to fill the Coliseum for this first-class, rollicking production.
HMS Pinafore has lost none of its satirical edge and still has plenty of contemporary resonance, lampooning the class system and its concomitant promotion of people with few if any skills to elite positions of power. There is also comic mileage to be found in the stupidity of English exceptionalism which is built into the bones of the story. We get Boris falling off his zipwire to great cheers and there’s even a shout out for Janet Street-Porter!
At the heart of the narrative is a love story. Josephine is the daughter of the HMS Pinafore’s Captain Corcoran. She has fallen for a common sailor, Ralph Rackstraw. However, Captain Corcoran is set on Josephine marrying Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty and she is torn between following her heart and fulfilling her duty. After several unlikely narrative twists, much beloved of lyricist W.S.Gilbert, it transpires that Rackstraw and Corcoran were swapped when babies leading to a switching of their ranks and to true love triumphing.
New Harewood Artist Alexandra Oomens is making her ENO debut this season with a sparky performance as Josephine. Her voice is brightly toned with a controlled and accurate coloratura and she captures the nuances of posh girl Josephine’s class-based dilemma with a praiseworthy degree of emotional integrity (“When you’re dining at the Savoy he’ll be tucking into a Big Bender at the Wimpy”)… even when McCrystal has comedic business going on behind her hilariously undermining the moment.
Her inamorato, Ralph Rackstraw, sung by ENO Harewood Artist Elgan Llŷr Thomas, has a passionate light lyric tenor voice and brings a youthful vitality to the role with his Hugh Grantesque good looks. But there is also a pleasingly stoic quality to his performance in his suicide song “My Friends, My Leave of Life I’m Taking”.
It is John Savournin’s Captain Corcoran and Les Dennis’ Sir Joseph Porter who are the comic heart of the piece. Savournin has something of John Cleese about him with a lanky frame well-suited to Lizzie Gee’s choreography which hilariously combines the Ministry of Silly Walks, moves from R&B singer Drake with a hornpipe. In fact the dancing throughout is a triumph and Rufus Bateman as the tap-dancing cabin boy Midshipmite almost steals the show. Les Dennis took a few minutes to settle into his part with his first patter song “When I was a Lad” feeling rushed but soon settled down and used his undeniable comic skills to bring a seedy sense of entitlement to the part.
The cast has strength in depth. Hilary Summers plays Little Buttercup, a bumboat woman and Captain Corcoran’s love interest with a thick West Country accent, and Henry Waddington makes a fine Dick Deadeye, a mincing comedy villain with a body odour problem who manages to offend by simply telling the truth.
The sets and costumes, designed by Greek designer takis, are simply gorgeous. Sir Joseph Porter’s posse of fawning sisters, cousins and aunts float around in pastel crinolines and orange wigs with the sailors stylishly decked out in authentic boaters, scarves and bell bottoms. The officers impress in navy outfits with gold epaulettes and tricorn hats. But the real star is the Pinafore herself which is represented by a series of cutaway sets with the warship impressively spinning on its axis as part of the choreography.
Chris Hopkins conducts the ENO orchestra and chorus with verve, accuracy and a jaunty confidence and the whole ensemble seemed delighted to be back in action after the long layoff.
It’s great to see the ENO back at the top of its game with this vibrant take on the Gilbert and Sullivan classic with production values as strong as any West End musical. HMS Pinafore makes for the perfect pre-Christmas treat for anyone needing a tonic to lift their spirits.
Performances run from 29th October to 11th December
English National Opera,
St Martin’s Lane,
London WC2N 4ES
All photos by Marc Brenner
Check our feature for more about what’s on at English National Opera in 2021/22