O RAPTURE UNFORESEEN. A G & S REFUSENIK RECANTS
Right. Shoot your cuffs, hammer that piano, rum-ti-tum and off we go:
When I was young I must confess
I’d run a mile from seeing any G & S:
The rumti-tumty racket and the style so ham
Seemed to bring out every horror of the worst am-dram.
(Chorus: It was all about the horrors of her first am-dram)
Tom Lehrer said of the Savoy operas “Full of words and music, signifying nothing”, and I associated Gilbert and Sullivan with over-decorated, safe fat-bottomed smugness. I forgot (or didn’t notice, in banal productions) that in their Victorian day they were pretty satirical. A particularly painful Mikado (“Mikado About Nothing”, snarled my companion, leaving at the interval) and a desperate “singalong” at Snape put the lid on it.
So despite the rhymes that riddle and the tunes that dance,
And the keenness of the critics (and their cousins and their aunts)
I kept away and shuddered saying “Not for me!
No, not even if the tickets in the stalls came free!”
But then I saw the Regan de Wynter all-male Iolanthe: rollickingly silly, beautifully sung and casually framed as if a group of teenage boys had crept into an attic, found an old score and extemporized props and costumes from junk. Adding this extra layer of absurdity somehow neutralized the weak plots and psychological improbability, to reveal the real merriment and neo-music-hall quality of the best bits.
So here I am again, happy as Larry, cheering for their even more imaginatively reframed HMS Pinafore: Sasha Regan discards stagey galleon romance and sets it below decks in a WW2 warship, with men amusing themselves in the naval tradition of a “Sod’s Opera”. The set is their metal-framed bunks: as the pianist in the pit strums the overture they lounge, bored, reading letters from home. Then one man takes out a tin whistle and gives the opening bars of “We sail the ocean blue…” and they’re off. Athletic, laddish, leaping and singing. As the Captain (Neil Moors) joins them they all manage a fast chorus while he leads an equally fast PE lesson, singing through press-ups and somersaults, fake medals flapping.
Aidan Crowley stuffs a hunchback pillow in his vest as evil Dick Deadye. The stout ship’s cook becomes Little Buttercup (Alex Weatherhill), deploying a fierce falsetto. Josephine arrives (more of a true counter-tenor, I’d say, and immense on the high notes). But she – and the “female relatives” chorus accompanying Sir Joseph Porter – are not in elaborate drag. To indicate laydeez attire they just customize cork lifejackets, trailing straps, canvas headbands, socks hauled to stocking height. So you never forget that this is a lark, a release from manliness: that in itself is oddly touching. Especially as sounds of the sea beyond the hull are often just audible behind the romantic farrago, the gaily-tripping-lightly-skipping parody of womanhood and the exaggerated machismo of manhood.
But mainly it’s funny, a distillation of high spirits: the nocturne “carefully on tiptoe stealing” is lit with mischievously dramatic effect by hand-held torches. And the bureaucratic monster Sir Joseph Porter KCB (David McKechnie) makes the most of bowler-hat, pompous pipesucking and excellent comedy legs. So in conclusion –
I went tripping through the foyer very cheerfull-ee
Saying: “Book your ticket quickly for this Queens’ navee!”
box office 0208 985 2424 to 23 Feb
tour to 5 May http://www.hmspinaforetour.com