“a wonderful example of the mastery of Gilbert and Sullivan’s waggish, Victorian wit and beautifully accessible melodies holding up to time”
Often disparagingly relegated to second division opera, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, in collaboration with Richard D’Oyly Carte, consciously moved away from improvised music hall entertainment to develop a niche genre of English light opera using familiar, stock characters and chorus in ‘topsy-turvy’ plots; ‘HMS Pinafore’ is one of their earliest and best-known productions, which pioneered this innovation. Their first international hit, it satirises the unqualified in positions of power and the stigma of social status in relationships. Both the Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter and Captain Corcoran have unmerited ranks of authority and when the Captain’s daughter falls in love with a common sailor, attitudes are challenged in true ‘G and S’ style. The Charles Court Opera Company cleverly brings to life the timelessness of these issues by fast-forwarding to the 1950s and adapts the reduced cast by submerging the crew in a submarine.
The vocal individuality of the company paints a colourful picture of the tangled web of privilege and prejudice and each singer brings a facet to the stage – in particular, Joseph Shovelton’s ease and comic timing as Sir Joseph Porter, Hannah Crerar’s (Bobstay) radiant voice and presence, Alys Roberts as Josephine, maintaining sobriety with a moving “The Hours Creep on Apace” and Catrine Kirkman’s quirky Cousin Hebe who, single-handedly, makes up for Sir Joseph’s original gaggle of female relatives. The ensembles are generally well-balanced throughout, though Matthew Kellett as Dick Deadeye is sometimes overpowered in the company songs and Jennie Jacobs’ (Buttercup) projection fluctuates with her change of register.
Transferring HMS Pinafore to the recent past with Rachel Szmukler’s functional, retro set and bright, vintage costumes and incorporating more contemporary choreography (Damian Czarnecki), director John Savounin builds a fittingly up-to-date adaptation. The acting is perfectly attuned to the size of the venue and the variety of moods creates a captivating fluidity, combining with David Eaton’s musical expertise to illustrate an ironically significant point without losing the enjoyable, traditional charm; only, perhaps, without a ship of men, does the corresponding role of Buttercup become somewhat ambiguous within the modern set-up. This is a wonderful example of the mastery of Gilbert and Sullivan’s waggish, Victorian wit and beautifully accessible melodies holding up to time in an amusing and enticing evening. William and Arthur would undoubtedly be tickled pink to see how little life has changed since they wrote Pinafore and particularly the current feelings and poignancy of mocking pride in “He is an Englishman”.
“This production has no weak points, and provides frequent moments of genuine hilarity”
The Mikado was first performed in 1885, when the British Empire was at its height, and Japan was seen as an utterly alien but intriguing nation. Japanese objects and artefacts were all the rage, and Gilbert and Sullivan tapped into this Japanophilia to satirise English governmental bureaucracy – creating a sort of 19th century musical version of Yes Minister.
In this current production, by the Charles Court Opera at The King’s Head, Glenn Miller’s jaunty hit, Chattanooga Choo Choo, plays as we take our seats, and places us firmly in the 1940s. Together with the gentle amber glow of the stage, carpeted and comfortably furnished with a Chesterfield sofa and other accoutrements of a gentleman’s club of the period, the tone is set for this tremendous production, which sparkles with joy and warmth. The choice of setting also sensitively and cleverly deals with the potential pitfalls of cultural appropriation, with Rachel Szmukler’s beautiful painted Japanese-style wall panels providing the perfect visual reference point in an otherwise British colonial environment. The cast – with the notable exception of Philip Lee’s splendid déclassé outsider Ko-Ko – speak and sing in heightened RP, which pokes affectionate fun at this most ludicrous of stories, whilst at the same time celebrating its enduring appeal.
It is clear from the first number that we are in good hands; the three opening singers (Matthew Palmer, Philip Lee and Matthew Kellett) in fine voice, relish the crisp fun of W. S. Gilbert’s peerless lyrics, and Damian Czarnecki’s choreography is tight and snappy to match. David Eaton’s faultless accompaniment, from an upright piano in the corner of the stage, sets the pace, and never lacks energy, even in the few moments when the operetta’s frenzied clip gives way to a more romantic or contemplative interlude. John Savournin directs with surety and panache, and David Eaton’s musical direction, plus superlative work from the show’s young cast, ensure that not a word or note is lost. This surely is the way to see Gilbert and Sullivan, in order to savour every fabulous rhyme and cherish every melody in this frenetically brilliant score.
This production has no weak points, and provides frequent moments of genuine hilarity, not least in the terrific contemporary updates in the perennial favourite ‘I’ve got a Little List’. In the midst of such a rollicking good time it can often be difficult to carry the audience into more poignant territory, but this is ably done throughout, and special mention must go here to the wonderfully affecting rendition of Katisha’s solo ‘Alone and yet alive’ by Matthew Siveter. Alys Roberts and Jack Roberts are perfectly cast as the young lovers Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo; Alys Roberts’ exquisite soprano ranging effortlessly from effervescence to sweet romance, and blending beautifully with Jack Roberts’ crystal clear tenor. Matthew Palmer, Matthew Kellett and Philip Lee are terrific throughout, both vocally and comically, and Jessica Temple and Corinne Cowling fizz with girlish glee as Yum-Yum’s companions. Whether you are are new to The Mikado or already a fan, this production simply cannot be bettered. It deserves every accolade that will undoubtedly come its way.