As W S Gilbert once observed, “Oh, wouldn't the world seem dull and flat with nothing whatever to grumble at?” Cal McCrystal provides plenty of material for that in his production of HMS Pinafore at the London Coliseum for English National Opera, interspersed with some fine moments, making it hit and miss throughout.
Hit and miss throughout
In an opening more suited to old-time music hall, the celebrated performer of G&S and accomplished bass-baritone, John Savournin, later to appear as Captain Corcoran, gives an interesting and witty introduction to the work, which is unfortunately interrupted by Les Dennis who pops through the curtain to make sure everyone knows he’s been brought in to perhaps give this show added popular appeal, and in case anyone is still unsure of his qualification for the part of Sir Joseph Porter he asks Savournin not to mention Family Fortunes. Why would he? Tacky pantomime tricks of this sort are to become a recurring theme and so the tone is set for what is to follow.
With that little episode over, conductor Chris Hopkins takes to the podium and establishes the vigour and pace with which he wants to imbue this production. It's an energetic start that is sustained throughout by the orchestra. His success in the pit is matched on the vast stage by the magnificent set design by takis. The decks of the ship are highly polished and the double revolve is used with spectacular effect to provide two onboard settings and in a mighty rotation ahead-on view of the expansive hull from sea. The scale of this is stunning.
Enter the men’s chorus, which does a fine job throughout, wearing the cleanest uniforms in the history of the navy; brilliant white breeches with blue and white striped t-shirts; another triumph for takis. Officers’ uniforms are traditional but it is with the entrance of the sisters, cousins and aunts that a blaze of colours like a firework display explodes onto the deck as the vast hooped skirts of the vivid frocks swirl with every movement. The quality of their singing more than matches that of the men.
What could possibly go wrong? Nothing with the esteemed contralto Hilary Summers as Little Buttercup, who, by the standards of this show, if anything, is understated. Likewise Josephine Alexandra Oomens and Elgan Llŷr Thomas give traditional interpretations of the frustrated lovers Josephine and Ralph Rackstraw; she with operatic grandeur, he with lyrical verve making a delightfully well-matched couple. At the mischievous end of the plot, Henry Waddington menacingly lurks around as Dick Deadeye issuing dire verbal warnings and threats as well as breaking into song with his resonating operatic bass-baritone voice. Bethan Langford as Cousin Hebe in a stunning frock and wig shows just how to make the most of a minor part, remain in character and steal the show on numerous occasions, sometimes with just a glance.
Choreographer Lizzi Gee keeps the show rolling along with some large-scale set piece routines. However, the motifs of flag and neckerchief waving soon become predictable and worn by their repeated use. There is the delightful addition of a tap dance to open act two in which Savournin shows just how versatile and talented he is. He’s joined in this by an addition to the cast in the form of a young boy named Tom Tucker, referred to as a midshipmite, played on this occasion by Rufus Bateman, although other performances feature Johnny Jackson. Bateman, aged nine, is clearly extremely talented as a performer, especially in the aforementioned tap sequences, eliciting huge admiration. The character, however, is a diverting comic addition and thoroughly annoying, popping up in scene after scene as a sort of impish lackey to the Captain.
He’s one of many elements designed to raise a laugh; the cat, the birds, especially the albatross, and even an effigy of Boris Johnson. Then there is the woman, bent double in a deep green frock with a walking stick, wandering around the stage apropos of nothing and getting in the way; an unnecessary and somewhat offensive caricature. Less galling, but equally out of place, is the smutty humour which seems to have replaced the customarily updated satire of G&S, with its digs at the current political and scene. There are some moments of that, but they are overwhelmed by a preference for cheap comedy.
Which brings us to Les Dennis. Despite his RSC credentials the main feature of his performance in keeping with the operetta is that he seems to be all at sea. Often at odds with the orchestra he struggles to keep pace with the lyrics in the Major General solo, despite combining speaking and his best attempt at singing. He is just simply not in the same league as the other soloists and his buffoonery is no compensation.