Before the start of HMS Pinafore John Savournin appears in his costume, as Captain Corcoran, in an old music hall style address to the audience. In a rather Morcambe and Wise type of skit Les Dennis then appears through the curtains to make sure he is getting a good mention.
So, before I turn to the review, dear readers, I will beg your indulgence and thank English National Opera and all the other opera companies large and small outside of Wales for giving out land’s singers, directors, and other artists the opportunity to share their talents with audiences (and we reviewers) which (with one of two productions from desperately underfunded small companies ) is so lacking at home.
Now on with the show.
This is both English National Opera’s first new production since lockdown and the first ever HMS Pinafore. Yet, Gilbert and Sullivan’s characteristic witty and satirical 1878 classic, here directed by Cal McCrystal and conducted by Chris Hopkins with great costumes by takis, could have been written for this glorious venue with its Victorian/Edwardian opulence.
Of course, having a production that is true to its period of writing and is also in keeping with the venue is not enough. Fortunately, we also have a splendid cast – and that is not restricted to those named in the programme. This is a massively intricate ensemble production with marvellous Lizzi Gee choreography including tap dancing, gymnastics, rope climbing, lots of slapstick (maybe a tinse too much) from the chorus and a very energetic actor Spencer Darlaston-Jones. Those salty seamen (I am trying not to get into Captain Pugwash mode) include Marcus Farnsworth as Bill Bobstay and Ossian Huskinson as Bob Becket. I am not quite sure what to make of the sauna scene, but we are all broad minded here (it was preferable to the camp mincing sailor cameo).
John Savourin and Rufus Bateman and chorus members
Elgan Llŷr Thomas
John Savourin and Rufus Bateman
Les Dennis and Rufus Bateman
Les Dennis and Bethan Langford
The headliner and, as he keeps telling us, making his operatic debut is comedian Les Dennis as Sir Joseph Porter. He plays the famous satirical role of the admiral and cabinet minister who has never been to sea but has all the (dubious) qualities needed to rise to the top – and it is, of course, made clear the jabs at politicians are just as relevant today.
I was not as bowled over as some seem to be by Mr Dennis, but he delivers his patter numbers professionally and pops up when necessary with over-the-top gestures and actions. It may be that he was so overshadowed in the elegant and effortless humour stakes by John Savournin as Captain Corcoran, fine of voice and of dramatic presence, with his delightful cheeky side kick midshipman, acted and danced by Rufus Bateman. We also had the famous Morcambe and Wise exit the stage dance.
Director McCrystal overplayed some of the non-essential humour, the doddering old woman who wanders across the stage, seagull visual jokes and another political jibe.
It does make the two socially distanced (in a totally different meaning to the one we now use) love birds Josephine thrilling sung by Alexandra Oomens and the dashing Ralph from Welsh tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s Ralph, seem a little dull as characters but certainly not as singers. They are both ENO Harwood artists and as such it will be a joy to hear more from them (in England).
Conductor Chris Hopkins keeps a tight rein on his crew (with baton rather than cat o nine) and the result is a show that cruises along with the only chopping seas being those that rock the boat of Welsh contralto Hilary Summers as a witty and loveable Little Buttercup.
HMS Pinafore is at the Coliseum until 11 December.
Photography: Marc Brenner