BWW REVIEW: Gilbert And Sullivan's Classic Victorian Operetta H.M.S. PINAFORE Is Reimagined For A Modern Age
Monday 18th November 2019, 6:30pm, Hayes Theatre
Director Kate Gaul presents a delightfully camp queer interpretation of the classic comic opera H.M.S. PINAFORE. Drawing on old theatrical traditions of cross gender casting, lines are blurred as this amusing and absurd tale of challenging class boundaries is presented with a liberal dose of glitter eyeshadow and sequins.
The fourth of W.S. Gilbert (Libretto) and Arthur Sullivan's (Music) collaborations and their first international success, H.M.S. PINAFORE has been delighting audiences since 1878. As one of the precursors to the modern musical, this was a clever and amusing commentary on the Victorian class politics, British patriotism and the absurdity of respected institutions that enable completely unqualified people to rise into positions of power. The premise of the work is that the well liked and polite Captain Corcoran (Tobias Cole) has planned a socially advantageous match between his daughter Josephine (Katherine Allen) and Sir Joseph Porter (Rory O'Keeffe), the First Lord of the Admiralty who really has no maritime experience but has instead worked his way up the administrative food chain to the exalted rank. The problem is that Josephine loves Ralph Rackstraw (Billie Palin), a foremast topman in Captain Corcoran's crew, a job that only affords him the rank of Able Seaman and puts him well below Josephine's level in society. Josephine originally agrees to the her father's match but when Sir Joseph, in a misguided attempt to woo the young maiden, thinking she is indifferent to him due to her inferior station, professes that love is not bound by social class, she sees this tacit approval to pursue her heart. Woven around this primary love triangle is Little Buttercup (Thomas Campbell), the older mobile trader who goes out to the ships, and her interest in Captain Corcoran even though he considers her too far beneath him to give more than a passing glance.
In a nod both to the past and the future, the cross gender casting echoes the Elizabethan era of men dressing as women when it was unseemly for women to perform and the opera tradition of women taking on 'pants' roles in order to give the youthful soprano voice while still portraying the maturity of an adult that the boy sopranos could not pull off. For modern sensibilities, the cross casting at first glance appears to be changing the story to a queer interpretation but Gaul appears to leave the genders as per the original work as the text still references Ralph as male and makes no attempt to imply Little Buttercup may be Trans. Hair and Makeup designer Rachel Dal Santo's design of rouged eyes and glitter brows draws on a blend of clowning and Chinese opera styling which when tied with Production Designer Melanie Liertz's flayboyant costuming choices, from sequin hotpants and Las Vegas showgirl feathers, draws the work into a wonderful camp and queer aesthetic shifting the story into a modern styling although it wasn't, and still isn't, entirely unheard of for sailors to enjoy dressing up, just look at the "Crossing the Line" ceremonies and renditions of 'King Neptune' and his bride.Liertz' stage design of a raised timber stage evokes memories of older traditional theatres with painted scenes however it does tend to leave the 11 strong cast appearing somewhat crowded on the stage, particularly when a tinsel curtain drawn on the diagonal cuts the stage by half. The planting the story onboard the man-o-war sailing ship using a model boat and a fluttered sheet creates a beautiful image at the outset and then the work relies more on the costuming and characterization as the backdrop reverts to basic tinsel or calico.
Supported by Zara Stanton's musical direction from the stage, presented at times with the assistance of various members of the ensemble on instruments that range from violin, cello, trumpet and trombone, the unamplified cast give beautiful renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan's songs. Thomas Campbell is brilliant as Little Buttercup, exhibiting a droll humor as the older woman who has seen a lot more than she's letting on and giving a comic falsetto and a stronger lower range for when the 'Bumboat Woman' isn't trying to be coy. Tobias Cole's opera background comes to the fore as the refined captain trying to maintain his air of power and control. Rory O'Keeffe gives Sir Joseph a broader Australian expression to remind the audience that he rose from very humble beginnings. As Ralph, Billie Palin gives the lovesick sailor a beautiful tone with the requisite depth to imply a young male character. The standout voice however belongs to classically trained soprano Katherine Allen as Josephine. The newcomer to musical theatre has an incredibly powerful voice with a ringing vibrato and the ability to still infuse a degree of a natural Australian accent into the work.This absurd comedy of class, manners and the ridiculous reasons used to justify why someone may be worthy ("He's an Englishman") is delightfully rendered with a fun blend of contemporary and classic stylings. Gaul has added some amusing updates, particularly to Little Buttercup's numbers to give the work a relevance while also remaining true to Gilbert and Sullivan's original work. An easy bit of summer fun entertainment.
Photos: Phil Erbacher