HMS Pinafore

Eliza Grant 5 February 2010

Cambridge Arts Theatre, 01.02.2010-06.02.2010


When HMS Pinafore opened in 1878, it ran for five hundred and seventy one performances, the second longest run of any musical theatre up to this point. Any director attempting to produce this show will be hoping to thrill to, and add to, the reputation which the comic operetta initially enjoyed. The Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s HMS Pinafore gave both Gilbert and Sullivan ‘aficionados and G+S virgins’ (as director Poppy Burton-Morgan labels us) a jolly and endearing production.

Burton-Morgan carefully transported the action from the 1870s to the inter-war years. The stage was metamorphosed into a dancing Union Jack by the Female Chorus who were dressed in reds and blues and whites. Thus, whilst the audience could enjoy the flapper-fun atmosphere, we were also encouraged to really think: to think about patriotism; to take note of the constant satirical attacks on the British class system; to think about both past and present conflicts.

There was a strange dichotomy between Choruses: whilst the women were lively and at ease with the choreography, the men seemed to lack a little bit of lustre. The voices were undoubtedly there, but their dancing sometimes looked uncomfortable and forced. At the forefront of the Male Chorus was, of course, Dick Deadeye (Jonathan Padley), the misanthrope who is constantly spurned for his forbidding ‘face and form’ even though he represents a rather dated voice of reason and common sense. Padely gave an extremely charismatic performance. With a horrible gait and a rasping voice, he shrouded his corner of the stage with doom and gloom. His exultant exclamation ‘I told you so!’ rang through the theatre with conviction.

Captain Corcoran (Iwan Davies) divided my small party. For some he did not quite manage to fill his role; for others his timid portrayal of the Captain was an intelligent foreshadowing of his becoming a mere ‘tar’ at the end of the production. When Ralph Rackstraw (Geoff Williams) assumed Davies’ role, he did indeed look like a more solid and reliable Captain whilst Davies looked much more at ease in his sailor’s garb.

Sir Joseph Porter (Mathew Thorne) lifted this performance. Pompous, arrogant, camp and splendidly bedecked in a blue smoking jacket, he sang and danced like Gilbert and Sullivan was a lifestyle, rather than a mannered portrayal of 1870s Britain. His ‘sisters and cousins and aunts’ were suitably enamoured with him.  His engagement to Hebe at the end of the production made him into a hero: disgruntled but uncomplaining and cigarette firmly in hand.

The set was constructed to show the claustrophobia of the ship itself. Even when certain characters were not on stage, their silhouettes loomed large in the cabin windows. For example, whilst Josephine (Alice Cairns) revealed her love for Ralph Rackshaw, Captain Corcoran was present in the shadows. The divide between love and duty was thus ever present.  Furthermore, the different stage levels showed, perhaps, that love did not have the power to level all ranks. The various marriages only take place after a certain amount of ‘baby switching’, after all.

Cairns’ solos were not as memorable as those of the male leads. In fact, the male vocals seemed to trump the female at most turns. However, when she flung herself on the deck, unsure whether to marry for riches (Sir Joseph) or for love (Ralph) she was suitably despairing and confused.

As a precursor to Cambridge University G&S Society’s 50th Anniversary Year celebrations, HMS Pinafore, was a fitting salute. It was a student production and obviously so, but thoughtful and occasionally infectiously energetic. To director and actors, ‘Now give three cheers’ indeed.

Eliza Grant