Review: All Male H.M.S. Pinafore at Hackney Empire

As a newcomer not just to H.M.S. Pinafore but to Gilbert and Sullivan in general (hangs head in shame), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an all male version of the popular comic opera – but it’s safe to say I’m officially sold. Inspired by memories of childhood productions at her girls only school, director Sasha Regan has assembled a talented and enthusiastic cast who know how to have fun with the concept, but never compromise on the quality of their performance.

This version of H.M.S. Pinafore sees some bored sailors on a World War II battleship entertaining themselves by recreating the story of humble sailor Ralph Rackstraw, who’s in love with his captain’s daughter, Josephine. It seems like Josephine might just feel the same way, but she’s held back by Ralph’s social inferiority and her father’s wish that she should marry the ridiculous (but rich) Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., the First Lord of the Admiralty. One melodramatic suicide attempt later, the lovers decide to elope but are caught by her father, and all seems lost until the revelation of a bizarre secret sets everything right and brings the story to a neat and happy -if a teeny bit weird – conclusion.

Photo credit: Francis Loney
Photo credit: Francis Loney
The show was written as light entertainment, poking affectionate fun at the English obsession with class, and the allocation of positions of power based on social standing rather than any kind of ability. The main target of the satire is the diminutive and rosy-cheeked Sir Joseph, whose pomposity is softened only by his unfailingly good manners. Michael Burgen plays his character’s absurdities to the max, sharing some particularly enjoyable comic scenes with Neil Moors’ Captain Corcoran. 

But there’s additional enjoyment to be had here in watching the male actors camp it up in the female roles, a task to which they devote themselves with great enthusiasm. It’s an idea that could have gone horribly wrong – but any fears that the all male casting might lead the show to feel gimmicky, or that the quality of the musical numbers could suffer from the absence of female voices, are quickly dispelled by some fabulous performances from male and female characters alike, backed by musical director Richard Bates on piano. Ben Irish, in particular, is exquisite as Josephine, his clear, beautiful falsetto hitting the high notes with enviable ease.

Photo credit: Francis Loney
Photo credit: Francis Loney
Lizzi Gee’s choreography is slick and polished, and the show is full of energy and movement, so there’s literally never a dull moment, whether the actors are somersaulting or skipping across the set. The simple staging, which sees a rope, a few boxes and some bunk beds used to great creative effect, is a charming reminder that sometimes you don’t need big budgets, an enormous orchestra or complex special effects to make fantastic theatre, as long as you’ve got enthusiasm, energy and a desire to entertain – oh, and a few catchy tunes. These are things this production and its fantastic cast have in buckets, and the result is as enjoyable to watch as any lavish West End show. Highly recommended.

H.M.S. Pinafore is at Hackney Empire until 1st May then on tour.

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