Gilbert and Sullivan provide an introduction to opera for many of us in the UK. It’s easy to see why: performed in English, with sections of spoken dialogue, relatable stories and a lot of humour. G&S is part of our cultural landscape. Indeed this is the second of Sasha Regan’s all-male productions I’ve seen at Wilton’s, the first being Pirates of Penzance back in 2019.
This exceptionally popular production of HMS Pinafore has been doing the rounds since 2009 and it’s back out on the road again for 2022. For those who don’t know the opera, it tells the story of lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw, who is in love with Captain Corcoran’s daughter, Josephine. She is secretly in love with him, but promised to Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Will she follow her heart or obey her father by marrying Sir Joseph?
What follows might be described as a comedy of class as the characters question if love makes us all equal despite our station in life. The answer, it seems, is yes, but only to a degree. We see declarations of true love, betrayal and a spectacular change in fortunes as the truth about both Ralph’s and the captain’s beginnings are revealed.
The production starts below decks on a World War II ship, the titular HMS Pinafore, with our motley crew of sailors getting in some down time. This sets the tone for the rest of the show, with some energetic, fun choreography from Lizzi Gee.
But the action really kicks off when Juan Jackson bounds onto the stage as Captain Corcoran. All athletic push-ups, biceps Charles Atlas would be jealous of and a voice to die for, bass Jackson steals the show. His comic timing is spot on and he’s also excellent in Corcoran’s quieter moments.
Talking of comedy, the production really is laugh-out-loud funny. The humour is pretty salty at times, but never crosses the line, although much is made of Ralph’s position as top boy.
Of course, the production’s USP is that all the roles are played by men. The cast of 16 switch between male (the sailors) and female (Sir Joseph’s entourage of “his sisters and his cousins and his aunts”) choruses.
Countertenor Sam Kipling plays Josephine, a part written for soprano. His voice is harsher and heavier than we’re used to and this changes the dynamic of the role. This isn’t the demure Josephine that I’ve seen in previous productions and you can quite easily see this version standing up to her father and daring to go against his wishes.
Scott Armstrong is hilarious as Little Buttercup, while the female chorus is ably led by Richard Russell Edwards, with some wonderful physical and facial comedy.
It isn’t all played for laughs, though. There are some genuinely tender moments between Josephine and Ralph, played by tenor Danny Becker. The latter’s voice is stunning and he brings a touch of quiet dignity to a production that is otherwise high camp.
This is a ribald, raucous production that is just huge amounts of exuberant fun. There has been some questioning as to whether we need an all-male HMS Pinafore – roles for men aren’t exactly lacking in opera, after all – but this show more than justifies its existence. So maybe the question shouldn’t be why an all-male version, but rather why there’s no all-female version? We’re used to women in trouser roles, after all; are there any producers out there willing to take on the challenge?
Bass Juan Jackson is in fine form as Captain Corcoran in Sasha Regan’s All-Male HMS Pinafore.