Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn continues it more adventurous programming this week with three nights of Sasha Regan’s intriguing all male production of HMS Pinafore…and was rewarded on press night with a healthy audience offering hearty applause. It’s a lively, physical production with plenty of trickery, gymnastics, innovation and imagination. But I’m not sure about this all-male business.
The policy worked best in the chorus numbers where the 16 fellas could switch with a just a gesture from being brawny sailors to ‘their sisters, their cousins and their aunts’ in just a twinkling. One moment they were foursquare and study – the next they were fluid and limp. Though I certainly didn’t see any woman holding such postures in the interval.
David McKechnie’s comic timing and expertly modulated voice saw him safely through as ‘Little Buttercup’ … but when gangling Ben Irish tried to hit ‘Josephine’s’ high notes, I yearned for an unstrained soprano. The gimmick was already squashing the art at times, and here it flattened it.
There have been hugely successful all-male other things. Shakespeare knew his plays would be performed entirely by men so the current trend of all-male casting is based on a certain amount of authenticity and gives modern audiences a wonderful opportunity to see how it worked. Matthew Bourne’s masculine Swan Lake extends the art of ballet because male muscles can add extra oomph to proceedings. But I fancy Gilbert and Sullivan would be twitching.
This is very much a stripped down production resembling a rehearsal within the walls of a male institution; shorn of costume, spectacle and orchestra. Richard Bates’ lone pianoforte stands side stage and the lack of instrumentation and action make the overture feel overlong.
But once the ball starts rolling the pace is captivating and the sight gags entertaining. The ensemble works wonders with origami ships and ropes that become waves, gunwales, a ballet bar and a finishing line. The set of six bunk beds suffices for everything else below decks.
The show is very slick and equally endearing. The comedy set pieces are traditionally played to maximum effect and the diminutive, blue-stockinged Michael Burgen made the most of his old fashioned music hall moments up against the towering Neil Moors’ Captain Cocoran.
The boy meets girl scenes are also traditionally played with no hint of homosexuality – though Tom Senior’s ‘Ralph Rackstraw’ really must learn to take his hands out of his pockets if he’s going to get his ‘girl’. But away from the tender moments, the experimental casting does add an extra layer of comedy. There are some lovely in-joke, transgender, throw-away moments … such as the all-male chorus dancing as the famous feminine cygnets from ‘you know what’.
This certainly is not as daring as Bourne’s Swan Lake. But I guess someone had to do it sometime … and it’s done well.