HMS Pinafore (Late Night)

Sir Arthur Sullivan and William S. Gilbert
Tony Green with Dayle James Productions
London's Little Opera House, Kings Head Theatre
(2011)

HMS Pinafore production photo

London's Little Opera House already has one version of HMS Pinafore in its repertoire: the Charles Court Opera production which originally premiered at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. This alternative Pinafore was first seen as a cabaret production at the Battersea Barge in January and has been reworked as a late night show (well, 10pm) for Islington.

It is aimed at an 'adult' audience and promoted as camp and saucy but, though it may shock any Rattigan's Aunt Ednas that still survive (surely not in Upper Street!), it is not the titillation fest you might expect from their promotional image. This ships crew may be camp but despite a credit in the programme, they seem to have lost their spray tans and I didn't recognize them as the six pack cuties in the promotion picture.

It is really only a little naughty. There is a very understated fully-frontal moment of exposure, a glimpse of bare buns, and a bit of groping by the Master of the Queen's Navy who seems very fond of Dick, but this is a fun night out not a raunchy one. Its camp touches are blatantly rather than cleverly funny, .making a light-hearted after-dinner entertainment that still finishes in good time to get home by public transport. It retains the spirit of Gilbert's whimsy - its gentle humour at class ridden attitudes and the promotion of the unqualified and an emphasis on politeness that couldn't be further from Winston Churchill's description of naval tradition as 'rum, buggery and the lash'.

Director Drew Baker is at the centre of the fun as Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, leading what is more Carry On than queer, picking up all the innuendo he can in Gilbert's original dialogue. Stephen Oliver Webb's self-confessedly effeminate Dick Deadeye is a very gentle villain and Philip Marriott a very proper ship's captain. His crew sporting American style sailor hats but patriotic British underwear are great in the choruses and sprightly dancers in Ewan Jones' excellent choreography with its witty semaphoring but a couple of them seem to be coping with a vocal arrangement that is a little high for them. Even John Dempsey's lovelorn Ralph Rackstraw risks shrillness, though it does not distract from his romantic charm. Both he and Gemma Sandzer's Josephine play it straight, though she gets her moment after a couple a glasses of bubbly. Clear-voiced, she pitches at a level for this venue, but sometimes not strongly enough to compete with the accompanying piano. It is a problem that seems to dog pocket musicals: the piano may be standing in for an orchestra but why so often far too forte?

At first Claire Carrie's bumboat woman Buttercup made me think the whole show had gone transatlantic before her accent settled into a sort of Wessex, but she enters into the G & S spirit. Sir Joseph's chorus of sisters, cousins and aunts are reduced to three glittery slinky sirens, quite the opposite of the original entourage, their bump and grind making up for deficiencies of diction. The setting is very simple: a centre-piece of draped Union flags and a cut-out ships wheel, but the budget has stretched to colourful costumes and lots of sequins, as sharp as the excellent chorus work among which Charles Carter's comically camp Boatswain is particularly delightful.

Don't rush out of the theatre when the calls are ending, there is a last minute reprise which lifts the whole show to a different dimension. I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek treatment but this finale whetted my appetite for a whole show given that treatment.

Currently in repertoire until 19th May 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton