Sasha Regan’s, all male, production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore is docked at Malvern Festival Theatre this week. Set in the hold of a Second World War battleship, a cast of sixteen seamen tell the tale of forbidden love across the social classes.
This production strips away the usual opulence of a G&S show, simply relying on the actors to share the story through creative, theatrical means. Even the orchestra is reduced to one, with the gifted Richard Bates accompanying the entire performance on piano. Ryan Dawson Laight’s set consists of just three metal-framed bunks, a collection of boxes and industrial wall lights hanging from the ceiling. Atmosphere is amply provided by Tim Deiling’s lighting design, while the gender reversals are cleverly invented with life jackets added to basic work and gym attire. The focus rests solely on the physical and vocal aspects of the performers, which is as refreshing as it is delightful.
This is truly an ensemble piece, with a finely drilled team presenting wonderful, choral harmonies and sharp, synchronised choreography, courtesy of Liza Gee. Tom Senior provides the steely looks of the lovelorn lead, Ralph, and although poor diction hampers his deliver at times, the chemistry between him and his sweetheart, Josephine, is enchanting. Ben Irish shines in his role as said Captain’s daughter, with the most beautiful, pure falsetto voice to rival any of the great operatic sopranos. Her father is brilliantly played by the very expressive Neil Moors who creates the most likeable, endearing character of all. David McKechnie’s performance of Buttercup is reassuringly strong and articulate, as is Michael Burgen in the part of the pompous Sir Joseph. James Waud is perfectly dastardly as Dick Deadeye, which, as a character, never quite lives up to the expectations of the name and Richard Russell Edwards makes a comedic silk purse out of the sow’s ear that is Hebe.
The only thing against this show is the material. Gilbert and Sullivan musicals are definitely of its time and don’t fare as well as Shakespeare, for example. The stories are generally thin, the music predictable and the dialogue noticeably dated. Fans of G&S are evident but dwindling and the small audience in attendance were hugely appreciative. This is certainly an innovative take on a dated show, superbly directed, exquisitely performed and a theatrical event definitely worth seeing. ★★★★☆ Rob Holcroft 8th July 2016