Music: Arthur Sullivan
Lyrics: W. S. Gilbert
Director: Connor Jones
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
At first glance, the plot of H.M.S. Pinafore is reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean – lowly sailor falls in love with upper-middle class beauty who is promised to a nobleman; he attempts to win her heart and comic chaos ensues.
But unlike Pirates, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is thoroughly British in origin, plot and themes, and this quintessential Britishness is at the heart of The Exeter University Gilbert &Sullivan Society’s charming production.
Sailor Ralph (pronounced ‘Rafe’ – it’s that sort of a show) Rackstraw is in love with his Captain’s daughter Josephine, who secretly returns his affection but is painfully aware of the class divide that prevents her marrying a simple sailor. Her father, meanwhile, eagerly encourages her to accept a proposal of marriage from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter, KCB.
This affectionate parody of the British class system was first performed at London’s Opera Comique in 1878 and was Gilbert and Sullivan’s first success as collaborators. At this Northcott performance, the audience is predominantly composed of senior citizens and students, many of whom are clearly die-hard G&S fans. The student production takes advantage of their enthusiasm, extracting every moment of comic potential from the show’s lively cast of characters.
Aled Jones as Captain Corcoran wins over the audience within ten seconds of stepping on to the stage with his witty delivery in exchanges with his put-upon crew. Soprano Alison Sinclair (Josephine) skilfully handles technically difficult songs while proving herself an excellent comic actress in the spoken scenes, and Danny Baker stands out among the supporting cast as a navy official with an unfortunate tendency to sob into a handkerchief at the slightest provocation.
The musicians do full justice to the lively score and the principals are generally strong. That being said, the indisputable star of the show is Sam Ward as Sir Joseph. The First Lord of the Admiralty is pompous, tall and reedy, with trousers slightly too short and a host of hilarious facial expressions.
His appearance is also a triumph for make-up artist Kitty Benzecry who convincingly adds at least 40 years to Ward’s real age, with wrinkles, lines and a shock of grey hair. The effect is delightfully similar to the characters in The Thunderbirds, and Ward has an uncanny ability to move like them too, as if his knees were being jerked up and down by puppet strings. His officious solo number, “I am the Monarch of the Sea” is an outstanding comic turn, met with enthusiastic applause as he prances and struts around the stage.
The cast have varying levels of experience and this is understandably noticeable in places: occasionally the chorus is drowned out by the enthusiastic orchestra, and the singers sometimes struggle with lengthy phrases. Some, particularly the female performers, have developed the habit of placing a hand on their diaphragms when running out of breath, which serves as a jarring reminder to the audience that this is a student production and the music is difficult.
A few cast members lack stage presence at times, with a self-conscious tendency to focus their gaze downwards rather than engaging with the audience, but these are small imperfections considering the production’s merits. The design team show a more sophisticated understanding of staging than one might expect from a student company: the wood-panelled ship set and atmospheric backdrop are painted with artistic flair and facilitate the plot’s frequent entrances and exits, while shrinking the wide Northcott stage down to an appropriate size for the cast.
A few of the chorus’ costumes are familiar from The Pirates of Penzance in 2013, but these are all that is recycled – the Exeter University society have surpassed themselves with H.M.S. Pinafore. It receives one of the loudest and longest rounds of applause I have heard at the Exeter Northcott, and there is certainly great potential for the company if it continues on its current course.
Runs until Saturday 14th March 2015