Review: Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore, Hackney Empire

“The gentleman is quite right. If you please” 

If you have seen one of Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, then you know exactly what you’re getting with HMS Pinafore; if you haven’t, then there’s many a pleasant surprise in store. This production of the evergreen show has been seen before, at the Union in 2013 and on tour in 2014 but is being reprised here for another UK tour stretching from Yorkshire to Cornwall and it remains as refreshing as a Fisherman’s Friend.

Regan’s approach sees Sullivan’s score stripped back to solo piano, musical director Richard Bates doing sterling work from the keys, and Gilbert’s book performed by a set of 16 strapping sailors, the conceit here being performance as a way of passing the time, to lift spirits flagging a little after receiving letters from their loved ones. It’s a canny framing device and one which works effectively with hardly any tinkering with the plot at all.

So captain’s daughter Josephine (Ben Irish, thighs for days…) finds herself in a quandary when her father (an excellent Neil Moors) declares his intention to marry her off to the first Lord of the Admiralty (a dryly comic Michael Burgen) whilst her head is being turned by sailor Ralph Rackstraw (Tom Senior, those arms though!) even though his lower-class status means their relationship is doomed from the start. Unless there’s a woman with a long-held secret nearby that is, enter David McKechnie’s Buttercup.

For all the novelty of boys singing in falsetto voices, and it took a while for the laughter to stop last night, the most admirable quality of this Pinafore is how musically rich it is. The cumulative sound of the 16-strong company fills the theatre beautifully. And Irish’s upper register is beautifully clean as he plays Josephine straight as a die, so that there’s real pathos in the emotional connection with Senior’s Ralph, a palpable romantic charge that is most affecting.

None of the show’s comedy is sacrificed though, through the clever touches of Ryan Dawson-Laight’s enterprising design choices (so much achieved by a single piece of rope), the deft physicality of Lizzi Gee’s choreography, the torchlit playfulness of Tim Deiling’s lighting. And the knowing wink that the production often tips us, keeps it from ever getting too bogged down in worthiness – this may be light-hearted fun but it is deadly serious in intent, Gilbert and Sullivan sung as well, and as inventively, as it can be.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photos: Francis Loney
Booking until 1st May, then touring to Grand Opera House, York; Theatre Royal, Winchester; East Riding Theatre, Beverley; The Spa, Bridlington; Theatre Royal, Bath; Richmond Theatre; Theatre Royal, Brighton; Hall for Cornwall, Truro; Malvern Theatres; Churchill Theatre, Bromley; The Lowry, Salford; Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury; and Curve, Leicester

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