By Tessa Counsell
Durham Opera Ensemble’s HMS Pinafore is a genuine must-see. For an evening of roaring laughter, brilliant visuals, and irresistibly catchy tunes, at least, you really need look no further. It is, however, not for the reticent. When Director Jennifer Baker promises a ‘fun’ interpretation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece, she does not disappoint her audience. And, by opening the play with a rousing invitation for all to stand and sing the national anthem, she makes them as much part of the fun as any of the characters.
Humour, from the outset, is the play’s signature. Bursting onto the stage with the lively ‘We Sail the Ocean Blue’, jovial dancing and a wealth of tactile interactions, the band of sailors are a source of both energy and delight throughout. To suppress a smile at their banterous interchanges would be a tall order for even the most sullen of theatre-goers. For his slapstick comedy, Henry Chapman (playing Captain Corcoran) also deserves great credit. Indeed, whether hiding behind a small black cloak in order to creep up on his daughter or appearing in rather tight white trousers, nothing less than roars of laughter fill the theatre. Perhaps the most famous line of the play – the Captain’s brilliantly evasive ‘hardly ever’ – is not lost in its effect.
And as an opera, HMS Pinafore is certainly far from stuffy. Though Adam Brown may play the archetype of the bumbling aristocratic fool in his pompously accented portrayal of Sir Joseph Porter, the play is anything but dreary. And though distinctly set within its time, themes of national identity, Britishness, love which levels all, political correctness, and social divisions remain as highly relevant today as before – perhaps even more so. Bursting with colour in the dresses of the simpering female crowd, with satire at Sir Joseph’s insistence on repeating ‘if you please’, and with melody in the foot-tapping chorus of ‘I Am The Monarch of the Sea’, the performance is nothing short of a spectacle. Technically speaking, much of this credit is owed to the dramatic production team. The decision to frame the stage with a large bridge-like deck – providing invaluable space for dancing and to invite group comparisons – is just one of their achievements. HMS Pinafore, frozen at any point in performance, is managed to a perfectly balanced picture of symmetry.
Musically speaking, its accomplishments are likewise great. Between the rousingly nationalistic tunes of the sailors, Ralph’s elegiac lament of unrequited love (‘The Nightingale Song’), and the Captain’s mournful description of his failures (‘Fair Moon, To Thee I Sing’), HMS Pinafore has it all. The audience, swiftly launched from gay sea shanties to ominously warning tunes, must certainly work hard to keep up. And whilst special mention must go to Catherine Bench’s rousing aria (‘I’m Called Little Buttercup’) at the start of the performance, the play’s musical success is largely a communal one. For both its fantastic orchestra (directed by Theo Golden) and well-harmonised groups, HMS Pinafore is as good an advert for Durham Opera Ensemble as could be hoped for. When an audience leaves complaining that the music was, if anything, too catchy, the play cannot have gone far wrong.
However, for all its merits, HMS Pinafore is not a perfect production. With an opening night of multiple slight sound and lighting errors, combined with an occasionally overloud orchestral power, the performance might have been smoother. Some directing decisions are also questionable. For a play deliberately created in its original period setting, Buttercup’s reveal of a plastic chicken prop is nothing short of bizarre, whilst Cameron Gergett’s overly melodramatic portrayal of the roguish Dick Deadeye as a crouching, sinister villain seems incongruous. Rather than complementing the lighter comedy, the play’s more sombre scenes appear to sap its energy. After uneasily laughing at a near suicide scene, it is with relief indeed that the audience sees the return of the sailors to the stage. And, given its advertisement as a love story between the star-crossed Ralph and Josephine, the lack of on-stage chemistry between the two is something of a romantic disappointment. Perhaps that HMS Pinafore is humorous is a saving grace.
Thus for its comedy, for its spectacle, and for its sheer escapism, HMS Pinafore is not to be missed. Though the love story may not convince, where else can such genuine enjoyment be seen at the theatre? The answer: ‘hardly ever’.
Photograph: Ed Rees