Gilbert and Sullivan productions are variable things, but the all-male HMS Pinafore I saw last night at the Hackney Empire single-handedly erased several god-awful ones from my memory: thanks, gentlemen. Often bad G&S is born of some vague idea that because these operettas are from the past, they are Cultural, and that something cannot simultaneously be Cultural and broad, popular comedy (we must assume people who feel this way have never seen competently directed Shakespeare, or at best only watch the properly grim ones on repeat). That, or the people directing the operetta know the thing’s funny, but not how to convey that knowledge to anyone else. This production of Pinafore, thank god, does.
Nothing can really save the fucked up plot of HMS Pinafore. A woman (well), Buttercup, who nurses two children (there’s a good rhyme in the lyrics here about baby farming) switches them. Their class is here synonymous with their careers, so the one that, in due course, grows up to be a captain ‘is really’ a humble sailor, and vice versa (that’s satire, it’s just not—great satire). This captain has a daughter, who ends up marrying the humble-sailor-now-captain (Of course they have to swap jobs once the truth of their origins is revealed: of course they do.). The daughter’s young beau is, necessarily, of an age with her dad (nothing against May/December romances, but he’s described as a youth and a lad in the script, and it doesn’t seem to be a joke?). The former-captain-now-humble-sailor is thus free to marry lower-class Buttercup. Who once nursed him. With her actual breast. Which presumably he will now enjoy in another capacity. In the background a man marries his first cousin but like, fuck it, that’s nothing. Victorians what are you like?
All you can do is ignore it (or, I suppose, stage people thinking about this and uncomfortably moving along, but that’s not what they went with here) and keep singing all the innuendos: this is a classic, and you’re bloody stuck with it, aren’t you? The blocking here is consistently energetic, to the extent that I’m quite impressed that they did fairly complicated singing while executing it. It’s funny, sets a clipping pace and does a lot of characterization work. Parts that could (and often do) wilt, like the heroine Josephine, become sympathetic and fuller than they’ve any right to be by virtue of this generous staging. The Captain and Sir Joseph Porter, K. C. B. are always plum roles, but here they’re especially delightful. Deadeye Dick is a lot of fun in this, rather than a take-him-or-leave-him plot device. In fact this approach to fleshing out thin characters succeeds so well that Cousin Hebe, normally a nonentity, is here one of my favourites. The camp ‘oh honey, the things I could tell you’ confidence of this Buttercup is so winning.
The light set gets used thoroughly and well, and the cast pops off the stage for one number. A lot of good mime and prop-work creates spaces. It seems like more work was put into making this piece feel not contemporary, per se, but involving, appealing and comprehensible than I’ve ever seen put into G&S before. It made me realise how staid, immobile and comparatively unprofessional (or at least retrograde, and not really in keeping with what The Rest of Theatre’s getting up to at present) almost all other G&S staging and blocking I’ve seen has been, in the way that Curious Incident makes one feel as though a lot of lighting designers are asleep at the wheel, or Tennant’s Hamlet made you feel that most people doing Shakespeare needed to bring it to this level, even if they couldn’t bring it precisely to this point. That sense of—not only is this good, but this is the sort of thing this medium can and should do, this is the kind of thinking we have do about this aspect of production, and failing to do it isn’t really up to scratch, is it?
The all-male cast allows for a lot of queer sexual energy and gender-play, with varying degrees of feminine performativity (effeminacy, camp and drag as distinct from one another, from pretending to be a woman, and from playing a female character, etc). I’m always surprised by how much cross-casting productions make me think about theatricality and sexuality, even if the production’s subject matter isn’t heavy or explicitly concerned with exploring gender (and by how weirdly attractive I found Harriet Walter in the Donmar’s all-female Julius Caesar (jk, that is 100% not weird, you’re weird if you disagree tbh)) (but no, how cute the knee socks and fishnet dress were on Josephine in this—now that was legit weird (come to think though, feel a similar costume could easily have appeared in Clueless)). No kissing in the whole production, though? What, that would make this too gay? Come on, guys.
Leaving out the gender question entirely, the singing was uniformly good. Some of the high notes were cut off, but in general surprisingly little changed. Yes, it is especially impressive than men performed these parts largely as-written, but the show’s not just a curiosity, it’s also a great Pinafore and a great musical. The actors also (and this is a personal Thing, I’m aware) articulated the lyrics remarkably well. I really prefer opera and operetta where I can make out the words, which is by no means a given in G&S, especially with the parts written for women. It’s just much easier to get the jokes and the micro-elements of the plot (the macro-plot is difficult to miss, but how you get there can be important) if you can hear what’s going on, and while I suppose some people are probably coming to a show like this for THE PURE MUSIC, I’m mostly there to see a play. In which there is singing.
The only weird note (…) came in for me at the very end, when the characters who’d played women packed up their costumes, sometimes looking profoundly sad to do so (especially Buttercup). It was as though they were literally putting the Gay back in the box. It’s an odd ‘…oh’ note to end such a light show on. It wasn’t very clear, from the opener, that we were in a frame narrative, really? If this was an ‘it’s hard to be gay/gay in the navy’ gesture, it didn’t quite come off for me. I didn’t find it wholly legible. (Also they didn’t make the ‘cat’/’cat o’ nine tails’ reference very clear in one song where that’s the joke, but I guess that’s a choice they’ve made. Eh.)
In short, it’s a great production, and we’ll definitely seek out this company’s other projects. G&S can and should be this good in general. If any of this is your bag, trip you thither.