Review: HMS PINAFORE, London Coliseum

Cal McCrystal elbows his way into the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, but Pinafore remains a marvellous show

By: Oct. 30, 2021
Review: HMS PINAFORE, London Coliseum

Review: HMS PINAFORE, London Coliseum It's hard to believe that this is the first ever English National Opera production of HMS PInafore; it's not hard to believe that it's never been done like this before.

We know we're in for a different kind of a show when John Savournin (Captain Corcoran, but not yet) appears before the curtain for a bit of banter with Les Dennis (Sir Joseph Porter, but not yet). It's very Morecambe and Wise - not their last reference either - and this prologue sets the tone for director, Cal McCrystal's, approach (first tried out with the ENO's Iolanthe in 2018). The next two hours or so will tip the scales to the former in the description Comic Opera.

It's safe to say that some will hate the broadness of the comedy introduced into the much loved classic but others will welcome a fresh new take - after all, why do Pinafore if you're just going to sail the grand old galleon out on a millpond, declare an Englishman to be an Englishman and wave goodbye with the happy ever afters? That said, there's a running joke that long outlived its welcome, distractions from the singing and music (which is what we're paying for really) and a postmodern meta vibe that sits ill with a look that is entirely Victorian. For those of a certain age, the Two Ronnies' double entendre laden closing number routines were evoked more often than ideally would be the case.

Savournin and Dennis are soon back in character and they make an interesting study, at least on this first night. Many times over the last decade or more, Savournin has brought out the full comic potential of William Gilbert's satire, both as a singer and director. But for him, the music comes first (and we know that because, off the leash in one of the Charles Court Opera's celebrated pantomimes, he is an outrageously over-the-top presence). Dennis is making his opera debut and fails to convince that he's found either the humour in Gilbert's lyrics nor the rhythm in Sullivan's music. He doesn't need to sing (fortunately, because he can't) but he works against the orchestra rather than with it, something that might improve later in the run.

Enough of these choppy waters. Elgan Llyr gives us a charming, lovelorn Ralph Rackstraw and Alexandra Oomens sings with great sensitivity as Josephine (though her Barbara Windsorish look added another reminder to the Carry Ons that I didn't need) - they both find the pathos amidst the chaos. Chris Hopkins conducts with admirable concentration, Arthur Sullivan's timeless melodies as delightful as ever, thrillingly filling the vast auditorium with a full orchestration. The chorus, all "his sisters and his cousins and his aunts" and Ralph's sailor boy comrades, are splendid too, as is a cabin boy, Rufus Bateman, who, quite literally, finds his feet in the show-stopping second half opener.

Star of the show is undoubtedly takis, whose set and costumes make for as handsome a Pinafore as ever can have been staged. The Coliseum's revolve is used to winning effect, the ship seemingly a chinese box of different sets of different sizes, but so nautical that one can feel a little woozy even in the dress circle. The trend for boutique operas has introduced many new fans to the form and the up close and personal singing has much to commend it, but a set like this and a chorus falling so beautifully on eyes and ears reminds us why the adjective 'operatic' extends its meaning far beyond the theatrical.

I asked my son (a veteran of many Pinafores) if he liked McCrystal's interventions and he ummed and ahhed a little and said. "But it's HMS Pinafore - you can't really go wrong with that can you?"

I suspect he's right.

HMS Pinafore is at the London Coliseum until 11 December

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From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to see so much of his home city's theatre. He writes about ... Gary Naylor">(read more about this author)



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