Writers: Gilbert and Sullivan
Music Director/Conductor: Martin Handley
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
A 26-piece orchestra and a handful of soloists bring the songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular comic opera to a town still smarting from the loss of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, now decamped to Harrogate. The loss of one of the highlights of the Summer Festival was painful and expensive for the town and especially for the magnificent Opera House. Sadly this consolatory show by Tarantara Productions was greeted by an audience little larger than its orchestra on the mid-week night reviewed. But the size of the audience is no measure of the standard of the production.
As the show’s title implies, this was not a full staging of the operetta, but a concert performance of its music. The challenge for such a “semi-staged performance” is how far it satisfies someone prepared to pay the price of two CDs (or several digital downloads) to attend a performance without the visual elements of scenery, staging and costume.
The story is preserved intact, even if it is told in two dimensions rather than staged in three. Lowly Seaman Ralph Rackstraw has fallen in love with Josephine, the daughter of his ship’s commander. She loves him, secretly, in return, but is promised to her father’s boss, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Around this struggle between love and duty, rank and class, Gilbert and Sullivan weave satirical questions dealt with in other fashion by their contemporary Oscar Wilde. The class divisions, social strictures, and pomposities of the Victorian age were fertile ground for these and many others. Gilbert and Sullivan added some very good tunes.
To the tunes: The musicians are accomplished, and their performance energetic and sensitive. While string and wind sections are well-represented, the limited percussion section – in effect a one-man-band – does great work on the periphery, and there are some excellent touches from the flautists. Conductor Martin Handley keepsthe entire production on tight musical track
Although this is not a staged, but a “semi-staged” performance, technical disciplines still contribute to the evening. Judicious and sensitive use of the Opera House lighting systems greatly enhance the more sensitive and dramatic solos and duets.
There are some individual performances that draw attention, not least Abigail Iveson as Josephine. She was completely at home in the part, and utterly nailed The Hours Creep on Apace in Act II with show-stopping conviction. Andrew Dickinson is an endearing Ralph Rackstraw, and his voice, a little reedy at first, strengthens as the show progresses. Alexander Baker is an imposing figure as Captain Corcoran, Commander of the Pinafore, giving a nuanced performance that sustains our sympathies throughout. Susanne Holmes, as Cousin Hebe, elegantly leads the female chorus of sisters, cousins and aunts.
Ultimately, this is not HMS Pinafore. Or it isHMS Pinafore after a particularly painful round of defence budget cuts. No ship; No uniforms; The crew are kitted out in “smart casual” shirts and trouserswhile the upper echelons dress for cocktails or a dinner dance.
One incidental advantage of this staging is that the orchestra is quite literally centre stage, and so is the music. The score and libretto are largely ”unplugged” from theatrical distractions. Some may relish so uncluttered a focus on the core strengths of the piece, others may wonder if it justifies a trudge through the Buxton slush.
Runs until 6 February 2016 | Image: Tarantala Productions