Kings Head Theatre
Charles Court Opera
Star rating: ****
It’s astonishing how topical this familiar old (1878) favourite still is in the right hands. As Sir Joseph Porter, Joseph Shovelton’s self satisfied, self interested grin – and the revolting panache with which he delivers the famous “When I was a lad” song – is instantly recognisable. You’d find him “reckoned of by dozens” on both sides of Parliament and all over public life in 2019.
It’s a bijoux HMS Pinafore, cleverly arranged for eight so that the principals sing the choruses often as quartets and trios which highlights some exceptionally fine singing. I have rarely heard the Act 1troubled love duet between Ralph (Philip Lee) and Josephine (Alys Roberts) so exquisitely and sensitively sung. Roberts, in particular – dressed here (costumes by Rachel Szmukler) as a 1960s “dolly bird” – is an outstanding performer.
When you work with such a small cast you have to contrive imaginative ways of covering all the singing parts. Director John Savourin and musical director David Eaton have come up with some witty and effective solutions. For a start the Kings Head Theatre, configured end-on for this show uses the single aisle as part of the performance space which allows them to keep singers in the mix when they’re off-stage as well as making it all feel intimate and immersive. Second Jennie Jacobs, a rich voiced, delightfully attractive, charismatic Buttercup (so of course Matthew Palmer, strong as Corcoran on press night, fancies her like mad) doubles as one of Sir Joseph’s cousins (“His sister and his cousin – not even half a dozen”) and there’s a wonderful joke to get round the aunt who’s usually part of that chorus. One of the sailors is female (Hannah Crerar – excellent) too.
Matthew Kellett is a suitably ugly, surly Dick Deadeye (excellent make up job) trying to scupper everyone else’s happiness and he’s a find bass singer bringing chocolate ripple richness to the texture. I also loved the toothy earnestness – as well as lovely singing – of Catrine Kirman’s Hebe, cousin to Sir Joseph too. She wears the most outlandish shorts, headscarf and glasses and is an enjoyable actor
This nippy, succinct production respects WS Gilbert’s text without being slavish. It may be styled 1960s but the most of the language is unashamedly Victorian – and it works. This is a good example of how G&S should be done in the 21st century: lovingly but tempered with innovation.