Review – All Male H.M.S. Pinafore – Union Theater

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It’s hard for me not to think of Gilbert and Sullivan and not immediately cringe. Their operettas choke on their own treacle – always a happy ending, inoffensive, prudish. No wonder am dram societies love them.

This received knowledge has been turned on its head by Sasha Regan’s witty all-male stagings. Starting with Pirates of Penzance in 2007, she’s pared away the accumulations of decades to reveal the tuneful songs, pointed jokes, and confused relations (between sexes and classes) that have, apparently, always been there. And she’s made them beautiful to watch … and sexy.

Gilbert and Sullivan sexy? Oh yes, and especially the Union’s H.M.S. Pinafore. The extreme manliness of a ship full of sailors – tussling in their bunks, working out in their smalls, stuffed four by four into the tiny thrust stage – was, um, disturbing, but in a good way. For me. A WWII aircraft carrier bunk room provides the trope for the production – they’re on ship, they’re bored, they’re going to play a pipe, dance a bit, and sing to each other. Watching them horse around during the overture helped pull me out of the present and into the show. The handling of the prologue is one of the cleverest elements of the Union’s G & S productions: by making the performers a group of friends doing something for themselves (for example, in Iolanthe, they were kids at a boarding school), the audience is provided a context for both why the cast is male and why they might suddenly decide to do a show together. Of course they’re doing Gilbert and Sullivan, everyone knows their music! It makes the casting feel completely sensible and not gimmicky, neither “being done to make a point” nor “a marketing ploy.” The show flows completely naturally from its beginning. It’s not a “gay” Pinafore: it’s just Pinafore, but the audience must now see it with modern eyes, without bustles and wigs in the way. And on such a small stage, the words and music are inescapable, leading to the shocking discovery that, actually, it’s damned funny. Who would have known?

The plot of Pinafore is fairly simple: a young sailor (Ralph – Tom Senior) is in love with his captain’s daughter (Josephine – Bex Roberts), who has been promised to “Sir Joseph,” the First Lord of the Admiralty (David McKechnie). There has to be a happy ending, but how will they get there? Meanwhile: who is Buttercup (Ciaran O’Driscoll), the “bum boat” woman,” and just how evil is hunchback Dick Deadeye (Lee Van Geleen)? The plot is moved ahead by songs that seem impossible to accept without strong doses of irony: “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” “A British Tar:” they seem ridiculous! But then, it seems more likely that they should be taken tongue in cheek when played against the captain’s “My Gallant Crew, Good Morning” (in which he reveals that he’s not very brave at all) and Sir Joseph’s “When I Was a Lad” (a complete satire of how to get ahead in the government – or, perhaps, the rude reality, be friends with the powerful, then as now!). Choreographer Lizzy Gee adds lots of fun to it all, putting the sailors to work doing semaphore-style dance moves and inserting an entire Olympic program that manages to mock Chariots of Fire as well as Darwin’s Ascent of Man. It’s all just heaps of fun and as a bonus, well, yummy sailors ahoy!

One of the biggest struggles for this series has been the difficulty of finding strong male counter-tenors in the ranks of the young actors that tend to take these parts; this leads to problems in volume, especially in mixed gender duets, when the female characters are overwhelmed by the stronger voices of the males (a problem for “Refrain, Audacious Tar”). However, Regan has a real winner in Ciaran O’Driscoll, who not only is a convincing, lovesick middle-aged woman, but who has a strong and warm voice perfectly suited to his role. Bex Roberts’ isn’t able to hold up against Tom Senior’s when they duet, but Roberts’ tone is sweet and his singing quite on, if soft.

Overall this show was ebullient, and I spent nearly the entire evening grinning from ear to ear. I’ve already booked to see it again at the end of the month, but I wish I could see it every week all winter long – now that would be the cure for the cold weather blues.

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(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 1st, 2013. It continues through November 30th.)

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