Sunday 10 November 2013

HMS Pinafore

Union Theatre, London


By W.S.Gilbert and A.S.Sullivan
Directed by Sasha Regan

Benjamin Vivian-Jones

As Sasha Regan notes in the programme, it is her memories of single-sex school day shows, that fuelled her desire to bring all-male productions back to the Union. Regan is a canny director who exploits the confines of the Union well. Her company of 16 are beautifully voiced and the ensemble numbers are thrilling on the ear. The wit of Gilbert and Sullivan whilst belonging to a bygione era, brings a delicious sense of British understated irony to affairs of the heart. Not even as remotely saucy as a seaside postcard, the Victorian writers’ libretti still make us chuckle at their faux-innocent doe-eyed wordplay.

A few notables amongst the cast. Benjamin Vivian-Jones is a delightfully clipped captain. On his toes with whistle around his neck, he is a leader of men whose stature visibly shrivels when his true lowly status is revealed. Newcomer Lee Van Geleen as the beautifully baritoned cynical shipmate Dick Deadeye puts in a masterful comic turn, whilst David McKechnie’s gartered Sir Joseph Porter KCB (a truly plausible ruler of the Queen’s Navy) stole every scene with his gloriously hammed up Whitehall mandarin. Amongst the “ladies”, a veritable assembly of sisters, cousins and aunts, Bex Roberts provides a sweetly sounding Josephine.

But in a week that has seen the equality/diversity arguments thrust into the spotlight, with the National Theatre (NT) criticised by some for a paucity of female playwrights, is it right that a show in London in 2013 should eschew female actors, celebrating the dressing up of men as girls, complete with corsetry and fascinators? Modern casting is increasingly moving away from being gender and race specific and at its 50th anniversary gala, the NT had Anna Maxwell-Martin play Horatio, whilst at the same event acknowledged on film Olivier’s 1963 “blackface” Othello, a makeup that would be abhorrent today. So if it is, rightly, not acceptable to paint a white person in a black skin and pretend that he is black, why is it acceptable to dress a man as a woman and have him pretend to be a show’s female lead? Is this diversity from modern theatre and its audiences, or is it hypocrisy? Stephen Schwartz was spot on when he wrote Wicked’s Wonderful. “It's all in which label, is able to persist”

At the Union Lizzi Gee’s choreography entertains with occasional moments of sparkling innovation, whilst Chris Mundy’s piano work is flawless to the point of almost suggesting a mini-orchestra is in the room. If you like your theatre well-sung and as camp as Christmas, then set sail for SE1 and HMS Pinafore where you’ll find the festive season has arrived two months early!

Runs until 30th November 2013

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