“We’re sober, sober men and true”
The Union’s all male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan has become a reliable institution on the theatrical calendar and this year is no exception with their revival of HMS Pinafore (Or The Lass That Loved A Sailor) which they last delivered back in 2007. This interpretation starts off onboard a ship in the 1940s as a group of young sailors are killing time on their bunkbeds. As one strikes up a tune on his handy recorder, so the show slides into place as a little amusement for these men and it’s a neat way of subtly justifying the all-male conceit, with makeshift costumes just thrown together from whatever is at hand, playing up the inventive feel of the whole enterprise.
And with Regan’s sure hand at the tiller, Lizzi Gee’s choreography sweeping across the deck and Chris Mundy’s nimble fingers billowing the musical sails, it makes for a successful voyage across the Southwark seas. The playfulness of the concept makes for guileless pleasures – the nifty twist of a neckerchief turns a sailor into a sister (or a cousin, or an aunt) and Gee makes the most of the ensemble’s physicality with routines based around skipping ropes and press-ups, and the interlocking movements of different groups is beautifully realised using the sheer simplicity of Ryan Dawson-Laight’s design.
Musically, the show is at its best in harnessing the vocal power of its 16-strong cast, the choral numbers filling the room gloriously with their multi-layered harmonies and intricate melodies. Mundy’s solo piano accompaniment guides the boys strongly and sees them glide through some lovely accapella moments. Solo-wise, Ben Vivian-Jones’ Captain displays a beautifully rich tone and adroitly underplays his daftness to allow David McKechnie’s vaudevillian Sir Joseph to mug for Britain. Tom Senior’s well-proportioned Ralph fits right into leading man territory and in a talented ensemble, Will Keith and Benjamin Wong stand out.
The only slight weakness for me comes with the seriousness with which the production finds itself increasingly imbued. As the heroine Josephine, Bex Roberts sings prettily but captures neither heart nor head in the pursuit of her heart’s desire – not moving enough nor sufficiently funny to lead the show. Instead, the twinkle-eyed charm of Richard Russell Edwards’ Hebe or Ciarán O’Driscoll’s Buttercup capture the attention more and indeed the funniest moments come with the witty muttered asides of the sisters and the cousins and the aunts has they traipse off-stage. If the show made us laugh more often like this, it would be superb, as opposed to ‘just’ being really very good indeed.