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29 Aug 2019

Opera della Luna's HMS Pinafore sails the seas at Wilton's Music Hall

The original production of HMS Pinafore opened at the Opera Comique in London on 25th May 1878 and ran for an astonishing 571 performances. Opera della Luna’s HMS Pinafore, which has been cresting the operatic oceans for over twenty years now, has notched up almost as many performances.

HMS Pinafore: Opera della Luna at Wilton’s Music Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Matthew Siveter (Captain Corcoran) and Louise Crane (Little Buttercup)

 

As company founder and director Jeff Clarke explains in the programme for the show’s current tour, the company’s first 60-minute version of HMS Pinafore was designed for performance on board the QE2, in 1997. Performances for the Covent Garden Festival in 2000 and 2001 restored 20 minutes of the previously omitted material. When a decision was made, in 2001, to prepare a ‘full-length’ version with interval, the company determined upon the original 1878 version and ‘put back all the cuts, to preserve our stream-lined version as the core and to add a new interpolated opening and closing sequence’.

The resulting palimpsest, complete with some ‘judicious re-arrangement of the chorus material’, has been pleasing audiences ever since, and the punters at Wilton’s Music Hall showed their obvious delight, appreciation and approval during and after this lively rendition.

Some might like their satire served up in modern manifestation, but (sadly) some things never change, and the English class system can furnish twenty-first century humourists with as much idiocy and injustice for lampooning as their historical predecessors enjoyed. After all, the current Leader of the Commons is more commonly known as the Honourable Member for the 18th century.

Moreover, with mendacity seemingly the default mode of many of today’s politicians and leaders, the gentlemanly Captain Corcoran’s vacillation between truth and falsehood - “What, never?” CAPT.: “No, never!” ALL: “What, never?” CAPT.: “Hardly ever!” - seems absolutely in tune with the times. And, with Brexiteers blustering and rhapsodising along the lines of “We are a great nation and a great people”, it’s rather wry, though somewhat depressing, to be reminded by W.S. Gilbert that there have long been those who have failed to see the absurdity of regarding one’s nationality as an ‘achievement’ to be celebrated, rather than an accident of birth: as the ship’s crew joyfully crow of Able Seaman Ralph Rackstraw, “And it’s greatly to his credit/ That he is an Englishman! … For he might have been a Roosian,/ A French, or Turk, or Proosian, … But in spite of all temptations/ To belong to other nations,/ He remains an Englishman!”

In fact, Clarke moves the action not forward, but back, to the days of Dickens, justifying this transposition by reference to numerous Dickensian resonances: ‘One of Dickens’ Sketches by Boz tells of a snobbish resident by the name of Mrs Joseph Porter. Another describes a marine-store dealer in Seven Dials and lists the contents of his store: handkerchiefs, ribbons, a small tray containing silver watches, snuff, tobaccy boxes - in fact the very inventory of Buttercup’s stock.’ No ‘justification’ is really needed though, for if anyone was concerned with the efforts, and accompanying risks, of the lower strata of the middle class to rise from being tradesmen and upper servants, and the gap between the practices of this new commercial middle class and the principles of morality, then Dickens was.

At Wilton’s, the small cast of eight - there’s some doubling up for Sir Joseph’s various sisters and aunts - expended great energy and sustained a terrific pace. A naval tattoo (Graham Dare, percussion) gets the show underway and as pianist/musical director Michael Waldron and his sailor-suited six-piece band ripped through the overture, so the scattered ropes and tarpaulin were gathered, the ship’s rigging hoisted, and Pinafore made ready to set forth from her mooring bay in Portsmouth harbour.

Matthew Siveter impressed as Captain Corcoran, with his suave baritone, smooth phrasing and self-serving expediency: ‘I am the Captain’ found Siveter in particularly fine voice, and ‘Never Mind the Why and Wherefore’ saw him joined by an effervescent Josephine (Georgina Stalbow) and Graeme Henderson’s outlandish Sir Joseph in a refrain-reprising rejoicing that, threatening to roll on infinitely, took on the slightly desperate but deliciously madcap air of an Eric Morecambe routine.

Elsewhere Stalbow’s diction sometimes dissatisfied and she didn’t always have the heft to carry over the lively band - although, admittedly, I was seated very close to Waldron’s vigorous vamping - but she had plenty of glossiness at the top and her Josephine was warm-hearted. Henderson pushed the camp to the brink, and at times beyond, and brought a dictionary’s-worth of new meanings to the humble wink of an eye.

Louise Crane and Carolyn Allen worked hard, with sterling results, as Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph’s cousin Hebe respectively, while Lawrence Olsworth-Peter brought a youthful tone and a healthy dose of self-irony to the role of Ralph.

So, in summing up all that there’s really left to say is, “Now give three cheers …” for Opera della Luna!

Claire Seymour

Sir Joseph Porter - Graeme Henderson, Captain Corcoran - Matthew Sivester, Josephine - Georgina Stalbow, Ralph Rackstraw - Lawrence Olsworth-Peter, Little Buttercup/Sir Joseph’s sister - Louise Crane, Cousin Hebe - Carolyn Allen, Bill Bobstay - Martin George, Dick Deadeye/Sir Joseph’s aunt - John Lofthouse; Director - Jeff Clarke, Musical Director - Matthew Waldron, Set Designer - Graham Wynne, Costume Designer - Nigel Howard, Lighting Designer - Ian Wilson, Choreographer - Jenny Arnold, The ‘massed band of the Pinafore’ (violin - Rachel Davies, cello - Rosalind Acton, flute/piccolo - Gavin Morrison, clarinet - Simon Briggs, bassoon - Sinéad Frost, percussion - Graham Dare).

Wilton’s Music Hall, London; Wednesday 28th August 2019.

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