Preview: HMS Pinafore, operetta, and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society

Image credit: Tristan Selden and Amy George

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society is a steady presence in Cambridge theatre, but one that doesn’t get much coverage considering its unusual focus. Gilbert and Sullivan were a libretti and composer duo who created comic operas - it’s quite a niche and specialised area to devote yourself to, but talking to director Zoe Morris about her upcoming production of HMS Pinafore, it strikes me as one that deserves more appreciation by the wider Cambridge community. 

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society puts on around one show a term, and although these don’t have to be Gilbert and Sullivan productions they tend to be in the same style. Zoe explains the reason she applied to direct this specific operetta is because HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance (last term’s Gilbert and Sullivan production) were her “favourite ones.” She talks me through the plot in a bit more detail. “It’s set at the end of the 1800s, and it’s about Ralph Rackstraw, a common sailor aboard a ship, who falls in love with the captain’s daughter.” Comical as it may seem, Zoe is also keen to highlight it’s underlying message. “The whole thing is about how hierarchy works, how class conflict is overcome.” 

Her two main leads, the captain’s daughter Josephine and Ralph Rackstraw, are played by Tiffany Charnley and Max Noble respectively. I was lucky enough to sit in on part of their rehearsal, where I was absolutely stunned by Tiffany’s vocal talent, and afterwards was able to ask them a bit about their involvement in operetta. Zoe clarifies what it actually involves: “It’s an operetta rather than an opera because it does have speech in it, it’s not purely singing.” Max is keen to point out the satirical tone Gilbert and Sullivan productions take in particular, stressing how the duo “were effectively taking the mickey out of Mozart and high opera tradition. It’s very catchy.” When I ask a bit about how they stumbled upon such an interesting art form, Tiffany reveals that she’s never really done Gilbert and Sullivan until the beginning of this year. “But I really enjoyed it: all the cast was so friendly that I decided I wanted to be a part of this show as well.” 

Although Zoe takes a character-driven approach to her directing, encouraging the actors to explore the possible motives their characters might have for acting in a certain manner in an attempt to enrich the subtleties of the original characters, what stands out in this rehearsal is the sheer vocal talent of her cast. In a solo song rehearsal, Zoe works with Tiffany to use emotive responses to amplify this rich talent, and combined with scenery and costumes I envision the performance being breathtaking. With a show so heavily focused on the music, I’m intrigued about the way Zoe incorporates a performative element. “A lot of time when I hear this music, and even when I’ve seen professional versions, the chorus stands still,” explains Zoe. “It’s not very visually interesting. I tried to use props and have people playing around with the set. The chorus are all moving around and have something to do - it’s part of why we’ve given them all names and a backstory.”

Finally, I ask Zoe about the vocal training and experience of her clearly talented cast. “Some of them have done classical acting as well,” she explains. “Different groups do different things, and lots of people cross over between groups. We’ve got such high talent from choral scholars and people in choirs, but I was surprised about how good the acting talent was as well. We’ve been lucky to find so many people good at both.” 

In Cambridge theatre in general, the operetta is a form somewhat overlooked, and if you’re looking to remedy that then you could certainly do worse than give HMS Pinafore a try. The cast are certainly very excited about it: “it’s a really good sing, and so much fun to be in,” Tiffany says, and Max agrees. “I hadn’t done any theatre for a while before this, I loved coming into the first rehearsal and the camaraderie of it all. It’s so catchy and so fun!” 

HMS Pinafore plays at the West Road Concert Hall Thursday 9 - Saturday 11 February, 7.45pm.

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