English National Opera 2021-22 Review: HMS Pinafore
John Savournin Anchors a Zippy New Production from Cal McCrystalBy Benjamin Poore
(Photo Credit: Tristan Kenton, 2021)
Cal McCrystal returns to English National Opera (ENO) for his second Gilbert & Sullivan operetta at the Coliseum, following up 2019’s riotously silly “Iolanthe” with “HMS Pinafore.” His is an interventionist approach that will surely not please G&S traditionalists: not that there seemed to be any disapproving looks from them on opening night! As the physical comedy consultant for both the “Paddington” movies—as well as director of hit West End farce “One Man, Two Guv’nors”—slapstick takes centre stage. An old crone totters about, plastic seagulls zoom overhead. The second half trio—‘Never mind the why and wherefore’—takes place on a wildly revolving set that seems to get faster and faster with each reprise, until the breathless singers frantically beg the conductor to stop.
The story, of course, is the best kind of nonsense. Love is—seemingly—thwarted by class divides and a sense of duty; topsy-turvy rules put everyone in a spin; there is a midnight assignation; parentages disputed and couples convened by the conclusion. Gilbert’s libretto floats the whole thing on a sea of distended rhymes and non-sequiturs that always have, to my ear, an oddly modernist vibe: a Sitwellian farce before “Façade”.
There’s a fusillade of classic West End spectacle in McCrystal’s show: big chorus scenes are choreographed with lively steps and bolstered with energetic dancers. The second half opens with a spectacular, accelerating hornpipe tap-dance that whips up a storm of audience good humour. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is a delight throughout, and straightforward, bright designs by takis—two decks of a ship that rotate to reveal an interior—keep the mood light.
McCrystal brings plenty of innovative touches and salty innuendo. There is much talk of “bulwarks,” “topmen,” and the “poop deck.” “There’s quite a swell down here,” a towel-wrapped Ralph Rackstraw says as he emerges from below decks: a source inside ENO informed me that some of the rudest jokes had been softened to save the audience’s blushes. The dialogue has been rewritten for more spice and contemporary satirical touches: sly—and not so sly—references to contemporary politics abound, in-keeping with Gilbert’s crisp satire on unfitness for high office. There is an especially delicious visual gag on one former-journalist-turned-prime-minister, puncturing ‘For He is an Englishman.’ There are plenty of knowing metatheatrical japes too—“The conductor prefers to take his applause before the show: much safer that way;” “can we turn the sea down a bit, please!”—which keep the show buoyant.
Jokes come thick and fast: perhaps an embarrassment of riches, in some ways. Occasionally the rapid-fire gags fall over one another and disturbs the comic rhythm. At other times the interpolation of screwball physical hijinks into some of the straighter arias is a bit tonally disconcerting—such as in Josephine’s Violetta-ish lament—though plenty did, and will, enjoy that kind of zany, surrealist bathos.
Les Dennis plays Sir Joseph Porter, a drunken, overpromoted idiot. For non-UK readers, Dennis became a household name as a game show host but is also a serious comedian and established actor. He excels as a buffoon, and he’s up-to-par vocally, though his patter could use a bit more definition. Singing is seldom the top priority in these G&S roles for raconteurs, but it really does help when there’s a solid instrument behind the actor. He was a bit tense on opening night—vocally and dramatically—but will surely relax into the role as the show goes on.
Punters might come for Les Dennis, but there’s no doubt they should stay for John Savournin’s Captain Corcoran, who also plays himself in a witty little bit of compering at the top of the show. Vocally, he’s in oaky, luxurious form throughout, with a plummy pomposity in both speech and song that is echt-Gilbert. “An English Tar” with Marcus Farnsworth and Ossian Hutchinson was a dark-hued highlight. As a comic actor he is second-to-none, playing it ramrod-straight in silly dialogue and moving with great panache. Presumably these are all skills honed directing Opera Holland Park’s sparkling “The Pirates of Penzance” this summer.
His tall, willowy aspect makes his movements especially pantomimic and Pythonesque: how many singers are there currently working in mainstage opera who can pull off a convincing tap-dance? The prevailing sense is of a versatile team player: a key anchor for Les Dennis and colleagues, assured and lively in both music and drama.
Another of McCrystal’s inventions is a wholly new character: a boy midshipman, played by the irrepressible Rufus Bateman, a perpetual albatross around the Captain’s neck. He upstages the cast with his antics: putting boot polish on the Captain’s telescope; rearranging the letters of HMS Pinafore into absurd anagrams; accusing the captain of a fondness for ‘the F word’. He can dance too, beginning the second half jig solo onstage: the kind of thing that takes real panache. One to watch.
ENO has put two of its young Harewood artists at the centre of the show: Alexandra Oomens’ Josephine and Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s Ralph. The former makes her ENO debut and sang with crystalline exactness and real beauty in music that isn’t always granted its full dimension; the latter was also admirably authentic, gliding smoothly around the relatively undemanding vocal writing: all the less room to hide, of course. Both were guilelessly melodramatic, as it should be, to offset that larks.
Hilary Summers’ west country brogue faltered a bit from time to time in the dialogue—there surely must be another way of giving the more proletarian characters in G&S some flavour these days—but she was in fruity voice for her various numbers. Henry Waddington did a surprisingly nuanced turn as the foul-smelling Dick Deadeye, cruelly marginalised by his shipmates for questioning the established order, generating a strange pathos. Bethan Summers does a brisk turn as Cousin Hebe, all poise and talons.
The ENO chorus—sailors and Porter’s extended family alike—had a whale of a time. Conducting from Chris Hopkins was tastefully unobtrusive, as it probably should be when the focus is mostly elsewhere, though they provided plenty of verve and polish when warranted. There were a few first night jitters: dialogue starting while the audience continued applauding, a family unfriendly near-miss wardrobe malfunction, and an occasional fumbled line. The pacing needed to settle a bit: for the audience as much as the cast, perhaps. But ENO surely has another raucous hit on its hands: and McCrystal has proven his flair for this repertoire. Perhaps a “Fledermaus” next?