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HMS PINAFORE – Union Theatre, London.

hms pinafore, union theatreWhen I was a lad…. though while a distant memory, I very well remember being taken on a school trip to see a stolid, stuffy, conventional HMS Pinafore which left me bored and disenchanted.  It seemed old-fashioned and stale.  Director Sasha Regan’s all-male versions revive not only the spirit but also refashion the fun of Gilbert and Sullivan classics.  Here, that sense of re-invention takes on even greater stature given this is the second time that The Union Theatre has mounted this early G&S in same-sex format; though the current version (under different direction) is a completely new production.

Though both text and lyrics remain unaltered, the setting is advanced to life on a circa 1940’s ocean wave.  The reasoning behind this appears unobvious and while it adds nothing in particular, neither does it diminish.  The concept seems reasonably sound though, given the make-up of WWII concert parties and such like.

Award-winning trio Regan, choreographer Lizzie Gee and musical director Chris Mundy reunite to steer the ship on a steady course.  Gee gets her dancers working at full steam very early on and there is no let up it seems as their drill continues unhindered.  Mundy manages to tease every morsel of vocal resonance available from the boys-cum-girls, while still maintaining a quality focus on those playing male parts.  Some of the resulting ensemble harmonies prove irresistible.  His solo piano accompaniment complements but never intrudes.

Tom Senior plays macho heart-throb Ralph with sincerity, he is one of the lads in every sense but tender moments with Bex Roberts as Josephine reveal hidden sensitivity.  Her father Captain Corcoran (Ben Vivian Jones) is taken to jogging around the vessel at every opportunity, his tendency toward fitness being suitably reflected in slightness of figure.  Nonetheless, he proves vocally commanding.  David McKechnie meanwhile succeeds in giving The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter KCB just the right amount of buffoon-filled pomposity while resisting temptation to over-egg the gags.  Alex Beaumont provides dependable support as the trusty Boatswain.

hms pinafore, union theatreA gaggle of sisters, cousins and aunts are revealed before the eyes of the audience as males change sex, dispense their ruggedness and adopt womanly posture.  A clear policy departure from the past, where an explicit distinction reigned.  This deprives the girls from making such a dramatic entrance as the one so successfully adopted in The Pirates of Penzance for example; while this does lend a charm of its own the effect is not so strikingly joyous.  Simplistic costumes (presumably being made from garments and items which are liable to be found aboard ship) are put to good use though a decidedly feminine look is only marginally achieved.  Richard Russell Edward’s Hebe is easily the most convincing, seemingly able to step into the role with composed comfort.  Among the ‘female’ ensemble, Benjamin Wong pleasingly catches the ear.

Much is done with the aid of a single rope and a few ammunition-style metal boxes (were it not for the rope, the design could equally be that of an army hut or even a large prison cell) perhaps put to greatest effect during an engaging duet between the Captain and Buttercup (Ciaran O’Driscoll) where each precariously climbs over the vessel’s safety rail and risk plunging into the deep abyss.

The joy of Regan’s all-male productions largely lie in knowing that the company are having as much fun as the audience, while remaining professionally true to the work and careful to be guided by the golden rule of never allowing room for overt campness.  Therein lies the beauty.  Although this is one of the earlier G&S operettas, there is still plenty of scope for witful humour, chiefly by means of cheeky mannerism, maybe a timed sharp glance here or an extended pause there.  There are opportunities which currently go unharnessed, resulting in the feel that this is not yet quite up there with some of the Union Theatre’s preceding all-male outings.  This is a young cast and singularly there are no members from former Regan De Wynter G&S productions; it may well be that as individuals relax and relationships mature so will the overall product.  For there is already a lot to like and I give three cheers (and one cheer more) that it’s oceans away from the lethargic Pinafore I saw as a schoolboy ‘a many years ago’.

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Reviewed 02/11/2013

By Gareth Richardson

30th Oct – 30th Nov 2013
The Union Theatre, London, SE1.

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Photography by Darren Bell

The crew of HMS Pinafore are raising money for Movember. Donate here.

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