HMS Pinafore

W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Union Theatre

By the time I started going to the theatre D’Oyly Carte was well past their sell-by date and their old-fashioned Victorian productions were enough to put me off Gilbert and Sullivan and the Savoy Operas for good. I thought G&S were strictly for amateurs on both sides of the footlights.

A major turning point came in 1981 when Joseph Papp turned The Pirates of Penzance into a brilliantly orchestrated, larky, silly, hilariously inventive slapstick, Broadway musical. I was always surprised, after this enormous commercial success, that nobody ever gave HMS Pinafore, G&S’s sly debunking of the Queen’s navee, the full Broadway show biz treatment.

As Pinafore suggests, and as Winston Churchill once famously confirmed, life on the ocean wave can be very gay indeed. "It's a queer world," says Dick Deadeye; and he should know. Naïve Ralph Rackstraw, who loves a lass, is shocked: "Such a revolutionary sentiment is enough to make an honest man shudder."

I once saw an Irish production in which all the sailors were high-kicking Tiller Tars and they were all in love with Ralph to a man. At the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, their production opened with all the sailors asleep in their hammocks. This was followed by morning ablutions, which allowed the lads to bare all, much to the audience’s delight at their cheek(s).

Sasha Regan has carved a niche for herself with her all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. There is nothing original about all-male productions of G&S. The British publish schools used to do them all the time. What is new is that here is a professional company doing it and that they don’t (as some people might presume) turn it into a gay drag show.

Regan in the past has not needed any justification for an all-male cast. But here she seeks to justify it by setting her production in a POW camp during World War 2. There have been countless British POW films in which the inmates put on a show as a distraction whilst the prisoners dig tunnels under the stage. Nobody digs any tunnels at the Union and the POW conceit isn’t developed for it to have any meaning.

The casting is unfortunate in two roles. One of the opera’s best jokes is when Captain Corcoran and Ralph Jackstraw discover their foster‑mother had mixed them up at birth. They instantly reverse roles, the common sailor becoming an upper-crust gentleman and the upper-crust gentleman becoming a common sailor. But since the amusing Benjamin Vivian-Jones, who is playing Corcoran, looks and behaves like a PE instructor who is already in the ranks, the joke at the expense of the British class system is completely lost.

Sir Joseph Porter is a caricature of W H Smith, who had never been to sea and had just been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty by the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. David McKechnie’s crude music hall turn has nothing whatsoever to do with either Porter or Smith.

Interestingly, there are pictures in the printed programme of a 1943 POW production in Stalag 383 and the prisoners are, amazingly, in full costume. Here the chorus boys dressed as chorus girls are hampered by their singularly unattractive costumes made out of life belts.

The production is well-sung but, disappointingly, it does not have the wit and invention Sasha Regan brought so memorably to The Pirates of Penzance.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch