ENO Response: HMS Pinafore reviews

3rd November 2021 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

For the first time ever, the ENO presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic masterpiece HMS Pinafore.

Also known as The Lass That Loved a Sailor, and first presented in 1878, this Gilbert & Sullivan classic is as sharply relevant as ever, poking fun at the British class system. HMS Pinafore’s score abounds with memorable musical moments: sea shanties, patter songs and witty reimaginings of patriotic anthems.

Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900)
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911)
Director, Cal McCrystal
Conductor, Chris Hopkins

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.


A Review of HMS Pinafore by Maxine Morse

As the curtain rose, I sensed fish and chips, fairgrounds, childhood cut-out paper dolls and folk watching their Ps and Qs. HMS Pinafore is unashamedly the epitome of flag waving, English Englishness.

This 1878 comedy opera, aimed at satirising Victorian inept politicians and ridiculous social mores, had the audience rolling in their seats as the near-knuckle jokes revealed much about their own personal prejudices and proclivities.

So who is taking us on this voyage of discovery?

The faffing Captain Corcoran is well liked, despite having all the charisma of a soggy packet of salt and vinegar crisps. John Savournin delightfully conveys this blustering ineptitude through his deep, well-modulated tones.

Welcome “his betters” – deluded, class-obsessed Sir Joseph Porter and the exceedingly well-heeled entourage of “his sisters and his cousins and his aunts”. Les Dennis, is a casting masterstroke…his arthritic hips don’t stop him clambering about the deck, chasing the captain’s daughter and sabotaging the carefully choreographed dance routines. He does a blissful job of “When I Was a Lad”. You can envisage him sweeping and polishing as an office junior and marvel at the cronyism that caused him to rise to First Lord of the Admiralty.

Hilary Summers, as Little Buttercup, cuts a matronly, common-sense figure with her fine voice and no-nonsense attitude. You do wonder how one so refined could have been involved in the deplorable profession of baby farming.

The two lovers, Alexandra Oomens (Josephine, the Captain’s Daughter) and Elgan Llyr Thomas (Ralph Rackstraw) are beautifully melodic and hit the highest, highs of dramatic intensity and passion. And then there is a suitably, irritating tap-dancing child (Johnny Jackson) a cabin boy who produced the desired effect, as I had a burning urge to get on stage to chastise him.

Cal McCrystal directs this opera for laughs…a hunched, elderly, confused, stick bearing woman, dwarfed in acres of lime green netting stole the show by falling down a trap door. Boris Johnson, made a hilarious entrance on a zip wire waving a Union Jack. And the blast of a firing canon woke the odd audience member who had too much wine at the interval.
Chris Hopkins conducts the orchestra with the energy that you would expect on the last night of the proms…upbeat, punchy, knee bobbing and seamlessly blending with the vocals.

Period costumes by takis, colourful, voluminous and crinolined, turn a bleak sea of blue and white into scenes worthy of “The Greatest Showman”. The set design had a whiff of extravagance…a huge vessel, rotating to reveal the top deck, the captain’s quarters and the ship exterior.

Finally, congratulations to our fine composer and librettist, Gilbert and Sullivan who through plot twists and turns, avoided controversy by ensuring that each of our eminent Englishmen married within his social class.

HMS Pinafore is a glorious and sumptuous spectacle that conveys a simple, almost Shakespearian message, that “all is well that ends well”. Maybe that is just what we need in these post Brexit and post pandemic times.


Alex Grant-Said

As Jacob Reese-Mogg appeared amongst the fairies in his 2018 Iolanthe, so contemporary winks abound in Cal McCrystal’s HMS Pinafore. This Gilbert & Sullivan has never been performed at the ENO before. Perhaps because it serves as an early blueprint for their later and greater works but McCrystal’s new production is designed for maximum merriment.

A Two Ronnies style exchange before the curtain goes up gives context. The timely lampooning of political croneyism is emphasised and there’s some patter about Les Dennis’s much-publicised casting. Yes he’s the one from Family Fortunes. Yes he’s never done an opera before but just to say there’s already an RSC production and several musicals under his belt. The audience needn’t balk. Dennis proves a superb Sir Jospeh Porter, the red-faced blitherer promoted to head of the admiralty and cabinet minister without a shred of competence (sound familiar?) His comic timing is adept and his obvious joy at playing the role is infectious enough to make up for any lack of vocal rigour.

Costumes by takis riff on traditional G&S Victoriana, with rouge-cheeked sailors and an alluring Dolly mixture of bouncing crinoline for Sir Joseph’s cousins and sisters and aunts. Characters come to cartoonish life against the set’s muted colour palette; also by takis. The revolving ship subtilely adds to the story’s upstairs/downstairs topsy-turviness; particularly in the “Never mind the why and wherefore” trio.

However it’s the same Carry-On blend of physical comedy and fourth wall breaking that McCrystal used to great acclaim in One Man, Two Guvnors that really makes this operetta his own. There are extensive modernisations to Gilbert’s libretto. Gags about levelling up and Wimpy’s sit alongside lively choreography from Lizzi Gee that include Beyoncé moves and flossing. The push for laughs is sometimes overpowering. The captain’s ‘shipmite’ sidekick is a charming character addition, played by 9 year old star-in-the-making Rufus Bateman who shines in a new tap dancing sequence written into the start of Act II. He doesn’t also need to whizz across the stage on a hover-board distracting from Hilary Summers’s charismatic Little Buttercup.

Similarly, the inexplicable bent-backed aunt is a surprisingly mean-spirited joke, undeserving of such heavy use and undercutting the weight of Josephine’s arias at their height.

Alexandra Oomens is the standout. The soprano makes her ENO debut with crystalline vocals and lively presence. John Savournin sails through the material as a consummate Captain Corcoran, having directed his own 2019 Pinafore with Charles Court Opera. And Chris Hopkins leads a punchy orchestra from the pit.

At times this vibrant production works against itself, over-gagging the pudding as if fearing a lapse in audience interest but HMS Pinafore wants you have a good time and on the whole succeeds.


Patrick Shorrock

HMS Pinafore sails triumphantly into the London Coliseum, in Cal McCrystal’s hugely enjoyable production, which has the audience regularly applauding throughout.

McCrystal takes the same approach as in his very successful 2018 Iolanthe with lavish 19th Century style scenery and costumes from Greek designer takis, with Victorian crinolines and a magnificent ship based on HMS Victory that makes full use of the Coliseum’s revolve. The production, however, is stuffed with sight-gags designed for a very 21st Century sensibility. These include some gloriously camp sailors with fabulous hornpipes and routines with mops and kerchiefs (choreographer Lizzie Gee). This crew couldn’t really do toxic masculinity if it tried.

But what really makes this production is its musical excellence. It is all too easy to forget just how good Sullivan’s music is, until you hear it properly sung, as it is here. Elgan Llyr Thomas is an engaging hero. Alexandra Oomens has plenty of vocal dazzle and conveys the melancholy heart of Sullivan’s music that the overall jollity never quite conceals. John Savournin’s Captain Corcoran takes to the stage of the largest theatre in London like a duck to water. Hilary Summers’ thrillingly dark tone and innate musicality make the most of Buttercup. Marcus Farnsworth and Henry Waddington are luxury casting in smaller roles. Chris Hopkins injects plenty of fizz into the intoxicating silliness, but has the gravitas required for Sullivan’s wickedly accurate parodies of early Verdi.

McCrystal takes a cavalier approach to the letter of Gilbert’s text, inserting additional dialogue and characters. But it supports the overall spirit of the piece rather than sabotages it by providing additional background. The figure of Sir Joseph Porter was based on a First Lord of the Admiralty who had never been to sea, but, more interestingly, was one W H Smith (now better known as a station newsagent). Les Dennis’s voice is somewhat threadbare but never less than adequate. His superb comic timing, ability to put a song across, and excellent diction made him a worthy member of this company.

McCrystal is engagingly candid in the programme note about the difficulties of He is an Englishman. Some of the audience will want to bask in a warm complacent glow at this point while others will be cringing at excessive nationalism. Both reactions are very English indeed. The satire is pretty gentle here. But rather more slippery than you might expect, leaving you uncertain whether English exceptionalism is being endorsed or sent up. The class system may be ridiculous, but so is the way that everyone professes equality while remaining convinced of their own innate superiority. Even I could hardly resist a tear when the Pinafore’s sails were finally unfurled to reveal the legend English National Opera –celebrating this company’s wonderful tradition of communicating opera in the language of its audience.


Naomi James-Mitchell

The debut performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore went of with a bang, artistically living in the intersection of Panto and Opera it really does live up to its’ comedic reputation.

It’s always risky bringing a novice into a theatre production as a main role but Les Dennis definitely pulled it off. What he may have lacked in musical timing he made up in tenfold in comedic timing. Some standout performances were, John Savournin as ‘Captain Corcoran’ and Rufus Bateman as ‘Cabin Boy’, an unlikely comedic duo who impressed with their tap number at the top of act II along with the professional dancers. Bateman especially, as triple time steps, pull back and ripples are not easy steps for someone of his age.

Not only was I impressed with Lizzi Gee’s tap choreography, but throughout Gee was able to create stunning dances with multiple props, but the effortless way she directed the company out of the way for the tumbler to shine was so seamless and unnoticeable thus executed perfectly.

Designer Takis excelled in the set as it was obvious to the audience that HMS Pinafore was a ship in the middle of the ocean, we even got flying seagulls and a certain air-born prime minister. Yet what I enjoyed the most was that Takis gave us a revolving stage which added variety to the performance and created more scenery for the story to play out in a compact space.

Furthermore, Takis’ costume design was superb with striking sailor suits and dresses. I particularly liked how Takis linked the glittery necklines on the dresses of the sisters and the cousin and the aunts!

The ENOs debut of HMS Pinafore was a success, a great comedic opera which is a perfect gateway to bring people of all ages to the art form.

5/5 stars.


Grace Creaton-Barber

There was definitely something in the [sea] water in Victorian England. Evidently this was the era that the artist learned to make jokes at the British man’s expense, and thank goodness they did!

Littered with slapstick shenanigans, HMS Pinafore is a tapestry of Victorian tropes: mistaken identity, class wars, baby swapping, cross dressing, food, drink and revelry. This is an opera that overflows with lampoons and is, for the most part, downright ridiculous. Despite its slightly dated content, HMS Pinafore remains as refreshing a take on British pomposity as I imagine it was on the day of its first release. Whilst there is certainly little original about the plot, it is undeniably entertaining and satirically astute.

The story is one of love. A love that is less judgemental of rank than society allows. Facing an arranged marriage to Sir Joseph Porter – a character plucked from the political history books –Josephine (played by Alexandra Oomens) hatches a plan with her beloved sailor, Ralph Rackstraw, (played by Elgan Llŷr Thomas) to escape the ship of her father: Captain Corcoran’s (played by John Savourin) HMS Pinafore.

For the most part, the production is simple – a term not often attributed to the opera and, as such, a testament to its accessibility. As a key motivator for the ENO, it is a wonder it has taken this long to bring HMS Pinafore to its stage. I do, however, have to implore opera directors to stop incorporating “pop culture” references and misplaced celebrities, as feeble attempts to attract wider crowds. I have now seen the Macarena and Gangnam Style performed twice and neither occasion was entertaining. Gilbert & Sullivan did the hard work for us regarding popular appeal, so perhaps let us focus our contemporary efforts elsewhere.

Those caveats aside, this was a well-thought-through and well-sung production. And what a remarkable cast it has, from the cabin boys up. Rufus Bateman, at just nine years old, takes total command of the ENO stage, leading whole cast tap numbers (!) and instilling a real sense of mischief, particularly when playing with anagrams of the ship’s name: ‘hamper of sin’ and ‘fish opera’. Other notable performances are of course from the three leads: Savourin, Thomas and Oomens. They are sensational together and equally so in their individual performances. For an opera that could risk its jokes falling flat, Savourin in particular ensures that they all hit their mark.

Tied together by a sophisticated revolving stage, this production of HMS Pinafore is exquisite in its straightforwardness. The only flamboyant features are the characterisations, reflected in some gloriously dandy-esque costumes (crafted by the brilliant designer takis). That said, only Savourin’s depiction of the Captain stands out as unusually stylised.

All that is left to say is: damn me – that was a good fish opera!


Daniel Shailer

Cannon fire, Toblerone delivered by seagull, Les Dennis looking like a uniformed Lorax – how did we get here? This new production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (the first at the ENO) takes its costumes and set from 1878, but with Cal McCrystal at the directorial helm it very much feels the latest West End panto.

The casting of household name Les Dennis as Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, tells you all you need to know. Before we’ve reached the second number applause is rippling through the audience. McCrystal pushes well past panto – though Dennis makes a good crack of some audience interaction – into the world of Carry On. He even nabs a joke from Airplane! when Captain Corcoran (played by John Savournin) shakes some sense into his besotted daughter (Alexandra Oomens).

Together, Savournin and Oomens deliver the evening’s stand-out performances. Oomens’ singing is luminous and things just feel steadier with Savournin on stage. After some pressed jokes in the opening chorus number and a misfired attempt to cajole the audience from Dick Deadeye (Henry Waddington), Savournin rights the ship through sheer stage presence alone. The chorus of sailors pick up his energy. Suddenly everything is brighter, funnier.

Dennis as Sir Porter, however, is a risk that doesn’t quite pay off. Dennis’ vocals are shades of Russell Crowe in Les Mis: noticeably quieter than his cast mates and at times noticeably (alarmingly) ahead of the orchestra. It’s to conductor Chris Hopkins’ credit that things hold together, but I can almost feel his heartbeat shooting up when Dennis gets going. Hopkins’ orchestra are commendably versatile throughout. In a score which treads the line between rollicking showtunes and melodramatic anguish, the pit injects the right amount of earnestness at each moment.

McCrystal rarely feels the need to make such a distinction. I count only one full song (Corcoran’s ‘Fair Moon to thee I sing’) without a visual gag to cut the emotional stakes. Josephine the Captain’s daughter sings her heartbroken despair while smelling her boyfriend’s armpit rag. Corcoran and Buttercup fall in love on a malfunctioning prop rowboat.

Comedian Tracy Morgan has been described making the same joke over and again until it stops being funny, then (as if by magic) becomes hilarious again. After two hours at the Coliseum you get the sense McCrystal might be onto the same tricks. A noticeably patchier first half sets many of these jokes off, so that they’re running after the interval. From a ratty seagull puppet to Porter’s impervious geriatric aunt (“but that’s agism!” someone behind me mutters), it’s hard not to laugh despite yourself eventually. It is, In McCrystal’s own words, a “relentless” way of pursuing comedy and not without its drawbacks, but it is undeniably fun. There’s probably a little more dramatic grandeur left in HMS Pinafore, but this is ultimately a satisfying production, building to a winning climax.


Grace Richardson

Following Cal McCrystal’s runaway success debut Iolanthe at the ENO, he makes his return with the first production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the Coliseum: an all-singing, all-dancing feast of easy laughs that proves Iolanthe’s success wasn’t a fluke. Physical comedy was rife, along with jokes the audience could see coming a mile off (and a few unexpected ones too). As an island nation with a very long naval history we do love a sailor story, but Billy Budd this is not: our sailors were kitsch and jolly and the audience was assured a happy ending almost as soon as the conductor, Chris Hopkins raised his baton.

The ensemble cast clearly understood the assignment. Les Dennis I must say, was a casting masterstroke: playing himself playing Sir Joseph Porter, making jokes at his own expense with brilliant humour, acknowledging the absurdity of his now being a self-proclaimed opera singer. Indeed right from the prologue, written by McCrystal, the parallel was drawn between Dennis and Sir Joseph (based on W.H.Smith of newsagent fame) who had no experience in the navy before being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty.

The ENO Harewood artists Elgan Llyr Thomas and Alexandra Oomens as Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine were superb in their portrayal of the sickly-sweet lovebirds. John Savournin’s Captain Cocoran was a particular stand out, his comedic timing spot on and displaying a fun relationship with the Midshipmite (Rufus Bateman) who was constantly trying to prank him. The only character that fell flat for me was Dick Deadeye – who’s brand of smelly social outcast seemed outdated, but that could just be my ‘snowflake’ showing.

There was clever choreography throughout, the tap dance featuring Savournin and Batement to open the second act and the trio of Denis, Oomens and Savournin who began to visibly pant as they ran circles around the ship, begging for the music to stop was a real giggle. McCrystal didn’t lash himself to the mast of the historical set and costumes (designed by takis, fitted out with all the bells and whistles – and firing cannons), we had contemporary references such as the pesky Midshipmite rolling through on a hoverboard. A fairly convincing effigy of Boris Johnson zoomed in on a zipline at one point, only to get stuck half way along and fall into the briney below.

McCrystal gleefully picked the low-hanging fruit of humour in the best possible way, flirting with the ‘He’s behind you’ gags of Panto, but never quite following through. The production along with the young cast who were obviously enjoying themselves on stage demonstrates, I think, that there is still a place for Gilbert and Sullivan on the contemporary British opera stage.


ENO HMS Pinafore – A delightful if choppy voyage by Carol Jones

As John Savournin strides across the stage to summarise the plot of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, English National Opera’s first production of the opera, out pops Les Dennis from behind the curtain. He gently asks Savournin not to reference Family Fortunes. “I’m posh now”, chuckles Dennis. As Savournin makes one of many jokes about Dennis’ credentials, conductor Chis Hopkins leads the orchestra into a spirited overture that marks the start of a light-hearted evening satirising class and life on the high seas.

Whilst much has been made of Dennis’s move from family entertainment to opera, it’s the whole cast that shines in this telling of forbidden Victorian love. Savournin’s rich voice combined with pitch-perfect comic timing make him the ideal Captain Corcoran. ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llŷr Thomas and Alexandra Oomens play the young lovers, with Thomas’s warm tenor cutting through the larger chorus numbers and Oomens voice shimmering across the Coliseum, especially in ‘The hours creep on apace’. Dennis brings a warm-hearted approach to the bumbling, pompous Sir Joseph. Though not a singer and a little unsteady at times, Dennis’ Sir Joseph feels right at home here. Other stand out performances include Bethan Langford as the haughty yet underused Hebe and Ossian Huskinson as an athletic Bob Becket.

Visually HMS Pinafore is everything you would want. Designer takis rightfully deserves praise for the revolving ship that dominates the stage and which Savournin, Oomens and Dennis masterfully negotiate as it moves with increasing speed during ‘Never mind the why and wherefore’. This, as well as takis’ candy-coloured costumes and Lizzi Gee’s joyous choreography that includes everything from Gangnam style to tap dancing, is a delight to see.

Yet even HMS Pinafore hits some choppy waters. Despite some excellent comedic moments, most notably a gag involving a zip wire, some of the slapstick comedy falls flat. The eternally lost Aunt Minje, played with a fearsome commitment by Flick Fernando, soon loses its humour and the constant background comedy means that we lose the few serious moments needed to make the drama pay off. It’s a simple case of less is more.

While it doesn’t quite hit all the marks, HMS Pinafore is brimming with energy. The company throws itself into every number and even Hopkins, who conducts with pinpoint precision, joins in on some of the fun. It’s a production filled with joy.


Tacita Quinn

Director Cal McCrystal’s production of HMS Pinafore is a fun and lively production but occasionally missed the comedic mark. With a superb cast and impressive choreography from Lizzi Gee, all the elements are there for a fun night of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but a few too many gags, particularly in the first act, fell uneasily.

Act Two, however, sailed much more gracefully onto the London Coliseum stage, at least partly because McCrystal repeated many of his previous performance tricks. With all the fourth wall breaks, Boris quips, and encores, the show did occasionally stray into ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ on the high seas. But I liked all this innovation, it felt as if McCrystal asked himself how it would have felt for someone in the audience to see a G&S production back in the day. With fresh satire filled to the gunnels with jokes at the expense of Brexit Britain, this was better than a static recreation.

Though much was made of Lez Dennis’s inclusion in the cast prior to the show, the limelight was undoubtedly stolen by John Savournin, whose performance as Captain Corcoran was exceptional. Dennis was amusing, but his voice was unfortunately incomparable to the rest of the cast. Special mention must also go to Alexandra Oomens who played Josephine the Captain’s daughter, whose singing was utterly mesmerising, and entirely distracted from her absurd Little-Bo-Peep get up. Overall, however, designer takis’s concept for both the set and the costumes transformed the ENO stage into a satisfying toy frigate, culminating in a production that was as camp as a row of sailors.

 

Despite this being a fun and funny production, it did leave me feeling uneasy at times. Is British farce ever going to reckon with some of its more problematic elements? As cutting and direct as Pinafore is about class and privilege, and as critical of contemporary politics as this production was, it still did not sufficiently tackle the Imperial legacy present in the libretto. Furthermore, the comedy often played into many of the weary tropes of British panto, including shades of ageism and sexism. As with the Mikado in 2019, it feels as if ENO has resigned itself to accepting that (despite the flossing) G&S won’t draw in a younger crowd who are less likely to forgive these shortcomings.

 

Though being familiar with many of G&S operas, before Friday at the London Coliseum I had never seen HMS Pinafore; indeed, my knowledge of the opera was limited to a two-minute recreation of its classic hits in an episode of The Simpsons. Despite having almost no prior knowledge of the opera I still enjoyed it, and its readiness to entertain, but more than a little guiltily. As audiences are challenged to chew the fun frivolity alongside a dubious picture of British nationalism, G&S operas are becoming increasingly hard to stage. McCrystal has taken a decent run at changing this with Pinafore, but it is clear that opera makers still have a long way to go.

Alexander Cohen

ENO Response HMS pinafore

Just a few hours after an English fishing boat was detained in France over a fishing rights dispute the ENO premiered its first production of HMS Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedic opera about English sailors “ruling the waves.” How ironic.

Director Cal McCystal’s return to the ENO after his much-heralded 2018 production of Iolanthe has all the elements of a great production but never manages to set sail. Following Captain Corcoran’s attempts to marry his daughter Josephine to the Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph, she actually loves a sailor who is beneath her class, violating all the laws of Victorian marriage etiquette. The action takes place on a vast and intricately detailed ship, expertly designed by Takis, complete with firing canons and the occasion seagull flying by. The stage is gorgeous, often flooded with rich a colour palette, but the production’s overreliance on pantomime silliness means that it can never reach its true potential.

McCrystal wants you to know that he is funny. He trained at Philippe Gaulie’s clown school that counts Sasha Baron Cohen and Simon McBurney as alumni. But his relentless crusade to turn every moment into a slapstick gag soon becomes jarring when moments of poignancy were denigrated by silliness. Take the senile member of Sir Joseph’s entourage of sisters and cousins and aunts who was found herself crushed by the falling curtain and even falling into a trap door. It was barley funny the first time. Whilst nobody watches HMS Pinafore expecting a Greek tragedy level of seriousness, the narrative arc still matters. Without devoting enough time to exploring character’s wants, conflicts, and emotions, the intimacies and genius of Gilbert’s lyrics cannot come to light.

With that said the performances managed to capture a subtler form of comedy. John Savournin’s Captain Corcoran manifested the manic energy and mannerisms of Peter Sellers. He was a delight to watch from his overly pompous pre show introduction to the delightfully campy choreography of his Captain of the Pinafore dance. Alongside Alexandra Oomens’s Josephine, who possessed equally adroit comic timing, they managed to steal the show from Les Dennis as Sir Joseph, a casting choice that raised many eyebrows given his lack of strength as a singer.

The most difficult hurdle to overcome when staging HMS Pinafore is its relevance in contemporary society. Is it right to poke fun at incompetent and unqualified authority figures when Britain is facing a plethora of political, economic and environmental issues? The detained fisherman probably are not laughing. The production tried to retain a sense of farce by clumsily inserting jokes about “levelling up” as well flying a zip wiring Boris effigy across stage during the rendition of He is an Englishman in all its fourth wall shattering and kitsch glory. Whilst these moments did garner laughter from the audience, it felt overly cheap to be genuinely farcical. HMS Pinafore is too rooted in a Victorian sensibility for it to have any real impact in post Brexit Britain.