Gilbert & Sullivan’s fourth operetta, that first opened in 1878, has taken on a new lustre under Paul Treasure’s direction with the injection of some more modern jokes.
The nearly 150-year-old play, HMS Pinafore, has been updated for this production by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of WA to reflect the shifting structures of traditional class-based discrimination of the 1950s, according to the program. While the show is not exactly a scathing indictment of the class hierarchy, especially as a classic Gilbert and Sullivan loophole resolves the conflict in a way that reaffirms the social order, it does succeed at poking fun at the snobbery of ranks and titles.
It does this most successfully through the fabulously farcical Sir Joseph Porter KCB, played by G&S virtuoso David Cosgrove. His song about the dubious methods in which he became head of the Royal Navy with no skills or qualifications whatsoever was played to many laughs in David’s hilariously camp lisp. Having never seen HMS Pinafore in any other iteration I can only assume the blatant homosexuality of this Sir Joseph is a novel update, and an excellent one indeed. It adds another layer of discomfort to the arranged union between Josephine and Sir Joseph, and allows for many moments of levity, such as the rainbow handkerchief he cries into when Josephine rejects his advances. It would have been nice to see even further commitment to this change, rather than the (in my opinion) anticlimactic union between Sir Joseph and his cousin Hebe at the end. However, I was glad Hebe got a happy ending as the constant presence of a martini glass in her hand made her an automatic favourite of mine. Her character has been fleshed out and given more songs for this production and Emily Schinkel proved her Hebe worthy of the special treatment with her powerful voice and irrepressible sass.
Ralph, Josephine and Captain. Photography by Nicholas Madeley.
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of WA’s wardrobe department have pulled out all the stops for this one, every costume adding to the joyful clamour of colour on stage. Sir Joseph’s sisters and cousins and aunts were bright and beautiful in 50s era flowery dresses and cardigans, and Sir Joseph’s fabulous Union Jack suit wouldn’t have been out of place at the recent coronation. Captain Corcoran and his daughter looked schmick in their naval officer uniforms, but my personal favourites were the jolly sailor outfits straight out of a cartoon, with red neckties and the most extravagantly flared trousers I’ve ever seen.
The music was tightly led by conductor and Musical Director Izaak Wesson, and it was nice to be able to watch the orchestra right in front of the audience. There’s nowhere for them to hide in UWA’s Dolphin Theatre, and it’s intimate enough that the singers do not need microphones which is always a plus. While the songs are not the kind you go home singing repetedly they were joyful and funny, with plenty of room for comedic performances.
Sir Joseph and Little Buttercup with cast. Photography by Nicholas Madeley.
There were many monumentally talented singers on the stage, including lead lovers Josephine (Heather Mackay) and Ralph (Chad Henderson), but special mention has to go to the extraordinary performance of Belinda Butler as Little Buttercup. She not only wowed us with her magnificent voice, but consistently had us giggling at her antics and overdramatic facial expressions, and nearly broke my heart over her unrequited love for the Captain.
Zac Porter’s Botswain also deserves a mention as consistently funny, partly thanks to his absurd London accent with more glottal stops than I’ve heard in my life so far.
HMS Pinafore is a good reminder of the joys of community theatre, where there are always some antics going on in the background of the ensemble as everyone fleshes out their characters off-script, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that perfectly suits Gilbert’s libretto. The able (and not-so-able) seamen were clearly enjoying themselves on stage which made the whole experience even more enjoyable for the audience.
HMS Pinafore presented by Gilbert & Sullivan WA is on now until May 27 at The Dolphin Theatre.