REVIEW: All Male HMS Pinafore, Wilton’s Music Hall ✭✭✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Sasha Regan’s All-Male HMS Pinafore at Wilton’s Music Hall, London.

HMS Pinafore review
Scott Armstrong (Little Buttercup) and crew. Photo: Mark Senior

Sasha Regan’s All-Male HMS Pinafore
Wilton’s Music Hall,
22 March 2022
5 Stars

It is the hallmark of a truly great production that on a return visit it comes up as fresh and exciting and delightful as when it was new.  And that is the case with the revival of Sasha Regan’s delicious all-male interpretation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s breakthrough hit, currently charming and energising audiences at Wilton’s Music Hall.

There is something particularly apt in the choice of venue: the crumbling glamour of this mid-nineteenth century music hall is the perfect frame for Ryan Dawson Laight’s visionary, pared-down design (assisted by Kingsley Hall) situating the action in the grumbling, grinding hold of a Second World War battleship.  There, the bored and tense sailors act out the story, using whatever comes to hand in the way of props and subtle costume modifications, to achieve daringly simple transformations, to take us from one century to another, from male to female, from the real to the imaginary; in short, to realise that most elusive thing of all – to expose the beating heart of theatre itself.

All Male HMS Pinafore
The cast of Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore. Photo: Mark Senior

While some may yearn for greater sophistication and expense, there is nothing on earth that can replace the genius of – for instance – Lizzi Gee’s choreography: the way in which, with a single step change, she morphs the male ensemble into the arrival of the ‘female’ chorus is the kind of thing that sends shivers down the spine, a feeling you know you will never forget.  Time and again, her groupings and gestures send waves of pleasure to you, hinting that beneath the surface plainness and austerity of the production there is a story of great truth.  In a world where that is becoming an ever scarcer commodity, that alone is reason enough to go.

But there is so much more to this work.  As a director, Sasha Regan – who for decades at her Union Theatre and elsewhere has done more to promote new approaches to musical theatre in this country than almost anyone else – deftly explores the conventions of the Savoy Operas to illuminate the human stories that animate them.  Librettist W.S.Gilbert is famed as a satirist, but how many of us give a thought to what satire really seeks to achieve?  It is nothing less than the exposure of insincerity, the absence of integrity to the full glare of justified mockery.  And here, Regan skilfully allows her agile, muscular cast to do just that.  Sam Kipling’s awesomely voiced Josephine is the first to engage our passionate response, with some thrilling top notes that honour Sullivan’s musical ambitions to the full.  By contrast, Juan Jackson’s suave dramatic tenor reminds us of the composer’s anchor in the best traditions of opera buffa.  In a more modern vein, David McKechnie brings a Robert Lindsay-like sneer to the vain, incompetent and corrupt Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (some things in this country do not appear to change much, do they?).  In fact, the casting throughout is excellent, with Danny Becker’s very West End Ralph Rackstraw, Jazz Evans’ pantomimish Dick Deadeye, Scott Armstrong’s voluptuously canny Scot of Little Buttercup and company stalwart Richard Russell Edwards’ pin-point accurate Cousin Hebe all fleshing out their parts with the same extraordinary mix of fantasy and sincerity.

Wilton's Music Hall
Sam Kipling (Josephine) and Juan Jackson (Captain Corcoran). Photo: Mark Senior

With the whole work lit ingeniously by Ben Bull, the tattered neoclassical venue fits G&S’s comic opera formula like a glove (I also thought that when I saw the same work at the Hackney Empire a few years ago – as a touring production this is hard to beat).  Bull mixes a slightly dreamy, almost fugitive representation of the ‘real’ 1940s setting with some boldly frank, obviously ‘flat’ washes for the ‘period’ scenes; then – almost imperceptibly at first – he gradually knits these together into a fully coalesced whole that appeals as much to the head as to the soul.  All the while, music director Ashley Jacobs at a single gently amplified piano steers a sound course through the many and varied waters of the score’s abundant treats, the ideal accompanist – whether to singing, dancing or dramatic action.

In years gone by, when this venue was new, sailors (and their ‘acquaintances’) formed a key element of its target audience, but they were segregated up into the balcony, wreathed in papier-mache acanthus leaves, while the posher middle classes for tuppence extra enjoyed the more respectable stalls. Seeing this show today, and its frank confrontation with the same social distinctions, one wonders if their ghosts might still be present to watch and maybe call out their own comments.  Whatever they might have to say about it, I know what I think.

Sasha Regan’s All-Male HMS Pinafore is running at Wilton’s Music Hall until 9 April then Theatre Royal Winchester from 21 – 27 April 2022.

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