HMS Pinafore or Dauntless Dick Deadeye

Gilbert & Sullivan, in a new version by Herbert Appleman
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London

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This is billed as ‘a new version’ of Gilbert & Sullivan’s greatest hit, plus a subtitle to suggest an enlarged starring role for musical veteran Gary Wilmot as raconteur seaman Dick Deadeye.

Be assured: Herbert Appleman has tinkered with neither plot, character nor Sullivan’s score — how could he? Instead he opens up WS Gilbert’s Victorian satire just a little, so that we all get the joke — including the revelation that the First Lord of the Admiralty is based on the bookseller WH Smith.

And I am happy to report that even hardcore Savoyards will find Ian Talbot’s musically assured Open Air staging, set on the prow and fore deck of the good ship Pinafore, the most blissful evening of tuneful and nautical joy to reach London since the National’s lookalike revival of Anything Goes, both affording a salty sense of life aboard ship.

Patriotism, even when gently satirised, is another potent force at work. On the first night, following two weeks of bad news in the capital, an infectious sense of London kinship was created as Giles Taylor’s bosun gave a ringing rendition of He Is An Englishman, the joyful emotion gripping an entire audience of all nationalities.

It was a moment that only Winston Churchill himself could have topped, with one of his rousing wartime speeches. But it was actually topped by the stately procession of the small but potent figure of HM Queen Victoria to the podium, making an unscheduled entrance complete with Union Jack bunting to delight a cheering crowd, proof that, mock them as you may, our deep-felt ideas of England, home and beauty remain fresh and true.

As part of Gilbert’s plot, the crew of Pinafore is undergoing a politeness regime with Hal Fowler as its considerate captain, commanding a group of ordinary seamen like a West End chorus line deferring to each other’s feelings. But this doesn’t save Ralph Rackstraw (tenor Simon Thomas) from class conscious humiliation when he falls for the captain’s pretty daughter, Josephine, played as an English rose by gorgeous soprano Scarlett Strallen.

The plot thickens when the First Lord arrives with his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, to claim the hand of Josephine for himself, blissfully unaware that his first cousin, the bespectacled Hebe (mezzo Sirine Saba) is head over heels in love with him. Desmond Barrit gives one of his best ever performances in the role of Sir Joseph Porter, at one point even morphing into a Mikado figure plus an axe-wielding executioner Ko-Ko to complete the comic effect.

Of course it all ends happily ever after, with a revelation by Lesley Nicol’s ageless Little Buttercup that the social standing of two of the principals should be reversed in the interests of fair play and romance.

The design by Paul Farnsworth, who has a string of Open Air musical hits to his credit, has created one of Regent’s Park’s most audacious settings with a steep sky-blue ‘hanamichi’ path that links the back of the house with the stage, down which most characters sooner or later make their entrance in highly colourful versions of Victorian costume, including a sexy catsuit for Josephine, which makes this not only a comic musical delight, but also a feast for the eyes.

Musical director Catherine Jayes on keyboards leads a talented onstage musical ensemble to complete an evening’s entertainment of vintage quality, not to be missed by all G&S aficionados. But be sure to take something warm to wear after the interval.

This production of "HMS Pinafore" continues in repertory with "Twelfth Night" and "Cymbeline" until Saturday,10th September. Evening performances begin at 8pm.

Reviewer: John Thaxter

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