Wilton’s Music Hall has come a long way since 1885 when Nelly Power sang The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery. Now, she’d be spoiled for choice and the pickings would be all around her as the crew of Sasha Regan’s sixteen-strong all-male Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore crew are all aboard for their latest foray into theatrical waters.
A delightful evening of music and mirth
The sound of waves and creaking timbers on entering the auditorium is a little disconcerting in a building of this age with the Thames so near, but soon we are into the overture with a stage full of burly sailors and cute cabin boys doing variations on a hornpipe. There’s no orchestra, just an upright piano (tucked in next to the front row of the stalls stage left if you want to avoid sitting next to it!). On the keyboard is musical director Ashley Jacobs, who keeps the production moving apace with playing that is loud and energetic or soft and sensitive depending on the song. His accomplishments on stage with the chorus and soloists are abundantly clear as are those of choreographer Lizzi Gee, who makes imaginative use of the split-level double-apron stage.
Time to ‘sail the ocean blue’ and meet dear Little Buttercup, who in any production is never that little. Scott Armstrong makes his debut with the company in this role. His strong Aberdeen accent resonates even in the songs and he can say ‘Aye’ in a range of meaningful interpretations as only a Scotsman can. It makes for much humour and the contrast between his ‘female’ voice and his beefy physique makes him all the more amusing. (Note: Although I understand the differences, discussions left me none the wiser over singers being altos, counter-tenors, male sopranos or whether they just launched into falsetto. For the purpose of this review the terms are interchangeable or avoided!)
Now the scene is set to launch this tale of unrequited love. Danny Becker, with a somewhat deeper pitch than the nightingale of whom he sings, follows with a heartfelt rendition of A Maiden Fair To See. Then behold! Here she comes, in the person of Sam Kipling, who is to steal the show, becoming the darling of us all while stunning with a top register any soprano would be proud of. Meanwhile, her father played by Juan Jackson, has introduced himself with the much-anticipated I Am The Captain of the Pinafore; a slight loss of status from playing the King of Siam in The King And I, but it’s still a major lead in this show. He’s an accomplished baritone with a resonant voice whose efforts at the gym six times a week are manifest to all. But hark! Sir Joseph Porter’s barge approaches with the sound of his ‘sisters and his cousins and his aunts’. In this scaled down production they cannot be reckoned up in dozens but the chorus is sufficient to make a large family which is often represented in its entirety by Richard Russell Edwards as Cousin Phoebe, who can be seen entertainingly scurrying around the deck doing all sorts of crazy business. This is not the ENO that recently treated us to vivid hooped frocks atop vast layers of underskirts. Designer Ryan Dawson Laight keeps the costumes minimal yet suggestive; entirely necessary when flitting between male and female chorus and roles.
With the hand-size origami barge safely and symbolically sailed across a tightened rope Sir Joseph Porter KCB makes his highly anticipated entrance, to sing When I Was Lad; always one of the highlights of the show. In this satire on the contemporary political scene, David McKechnie does a superbly enunciated job of confirming Sir Joseph's complete lack of qualifications for the office of First Lord of the Admiralty and describing how he achieved his elevated rank through sheer incompetence. Some things never change!
With everyone introduced, a dramatic scene between Josephine and Ralph leads to the act one finale which means it’s time to collect the daily tot. Act two brings some more delightful moments, opening with the moving Fair moon, to thee I sing from the Captain, who is soon joined by Josephine and Sir Joseph for the ever-jolly rendition of the interweaving trio, Never mind the why and wherefore. It just remains for Little Buttercup to throw a spanner in the works before all ranks and relationships can be satisfactorily resolved.
Perhaps one more tot is required to reflect upon a delightful evening music and mirth before feeling inclined to take a boat up the river and head for the bunk.
Juan Jackson, Captain Corcoran
photo credit: Mark Senior