Sometimes you just want to be entertained. Issue led dramas, soul searching and doom laden productions are all well and good and can often be stimulating in their own way but it can be easy to forget that theatre is also a place to escape from “dull care” and just enjoy yourself. After a trying day (don’t ask) it was particularly pleasing therefore to unwind with Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore which has just opened in revival at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End.
Shockingly I had never been to this marvellous venue which is totally steeped in an atmosphere which must have prevailed when Gilbert and Sullivan’s celebrated operetta was first being performed in 1878. It was their first big hit and set the template for their many successes which followed. While it hasn’t been around quite as long, this production has certainly done the rounds over the last decade or so but, in this latest revival manages to come up as box fresh as some of the white gym shoes which are on display. Set below decks on a second world war navy ship, the listless sailors decide to entertain themselves by playing out the original for their own and our amusement. This neat framing device not only provides an entirely practical solution as to why this is an all-male performance but also means that the ingenuity of the show’s production team and particularly designer, Ryan Dawson Laight, is highlighted. With little more than couple of moveable bunk beds and items that might well be found dotted around a navy vessel (ropes and torches feature heavily) G & S’s world is reinvented and represented to huge effect.
The same applies to the costumes particularly of Sir Joseph Porter’s retinue of “sisters, cousins and aunts” who accompany him everywhere and provide the flimsiest excuse to have a “female” chorus in the first place – although in this iteration they actually aren’t – if you follow me. These roles are played with utter conviction and manage to be clever, charming, convincing and undeniably camp; the cast are clearly having a ball and make sure that the audience does too. There’s an absolutely stand out performance from Richard Russell Edwards as Cousin Hebe whose physical comedy, posed attitudes and facial expressions sometimes threaten to upstage whatever else is going on – but only in a good way; the actor clearly just has funny bones.
David McKechnie nails the patter song, wrings comedy from every appearance and presents a bizarre figure as the First Lord Of The Admiralty who has never even been to sea. Interesting that G & S’s commentary on the political classes being promoted beyond their abilities is still entirely relevant and if you don’t believe me just pause to consider the case of Gavin Williamson (sorry, Sir Gavin Williamson). There are also excellent performances from Juan Jackson as a muscular Captain Corcoran leading his men in physical jerks and finding the right mix of humour and gravitas and Scott Armstrong as his admirer Little (little?)Buttercup. The pair share an inventively staged duet (“Things Are Seldom What They Seem”) early in Act Two which highlights the ingenuity of Sasha Regan’s direction. The main love story between Ralph and Josephine (Danny Becker and Sam Kipling) is surprisingly lacking in homoerotic overtones but both performers are in fine voice; Kipling’s falsetto is nothing short of stunning.
Indeed, the whole ensemble are fantastic and what a change to see a musical production which doesn’t use mics – not that there’s the hint of a problem with clarity, diction or projection; how refreshing. The accompaniment is just one single piano played with verve by Ashley Jacobs evoking the notion of school hall productions which the programme notes indicate that Regan was aiming to draw on. Needless to say, here it is taken to an entirely different and eminently enjoyable level and rounds out a performance which unfailingly delivers throughout.
I had a bad day yesterday; this production ensured that it wasn’t all terrible and that I finished the evening with a broad smile under my mask. This is a boat you wouldn’t want to miss so, “Let’s give three cheers and one cheer more” for the “infernal nonsense” which is Pinafore.