H.M.S. Pinafore (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

H.M.S. Pinafore (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, June 25th)

Nautical naughtiness sails boldly back to Brighton with a jolly all-male version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s tremendous operetta HMS Pinafore that brings smiles to all faces and even the occasional tear to the eye.

Last year audiences were treated to a similar singularly manly tour of The Pirates of Penzance – but if possible, this Pinafore is an even greater success. It first toured a couple of years ago, and returns as bright and breezy and inventive as before.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Sasha Regan’s outstanding production is that it is not all male just for the sake of it. There is a Second World War feel to the entire piece, both in costumes and staging, which perhaps suggests the crew of a warship, or PoWs, refusing to be broken by the horrors of conflict and staging the operetta for some light relief (an intriguing twist on John Doyle’s 2004 Watermill Theatre production, in which members of a band entertained the sailors on a World War II troop ship in the Atlantic).

Delightfully, this production loses none of the satire, pomposity, and wit of W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics – while adding considerably to the humour and even injecting tenderness and poignancy. Joy bursts out of every song and scene and the result is something that manages to respect tradition as well as adding freshness.

Yet again this deliciously saucy take on the famous operetta started life at the intimate Union Theatre in London and Ryan Dawson Laight’s design, mostly consisting of bunk beds, ropes, and boxes works just as well on a larger stage too. Not once do you feel this needs to be bigger and even Richard Bates accompanying enthusiastically on piano is absolutely sufficient.

The performances from all 16 cast members are extraordinary – and if that wasn’t enough they are fit and hunky to add to the talent.  The singing is superb, from rich baritone to light falsetto, and the audience comes to love every character as well as every innovative tweak to the musical numbers.

The opening number (“We sail the ocean blue”) sets the energetic tone, as the sailors launch into gymnastics, physical activity taken up throughout by Neil Moors as Captain Corcoran, displaying a glorious baritone voice as well as a great sense of comic timing. The liveliness seldom dies down, and there are plenty of amusing references sprinkled into the mix, from Nelson’s column to Chariots of Fire and, most hilariously, the evolution of the species.  Lizzi Gee’s splendid choreography certainly demands much of the hunky crew and the cast lap it up.

Tom Senior as able seaman Ralph Rackstraw is every inch the down to earth hero, with a fine tenor voice, and he works very well with Ben Irish as a spirited Josephine. Their duet at the end of act one is a thing of beauty.

David McKechnie neatly sets the tone of the gender swapping as he takes on the role of Little Buttercup, and his duet with Neil Moors at the beginning of act two (“Things are seldom what they seem”) is a masterpiece musically and comedically.

Michael Burgen tackles the role of the hypocritical and ridiculous “monarch of the sea” Sir Joseph Porter well – even 138 years after its first performance, this Pinafore loses nothing of its digs at politics and people rising to positions beyond their abilities and the nonsense of society taking class distinction too seriously.

Sterling work too from James Waud as Dick Deadeye, the villain with more than a touch of common sense, and Richard Russell Edwards as Hebe.

This is a production that is heart-warming and memorable, never descending into camp – well, hardly ever! – and with a quality and panache that would surely have left Gilbert and Sullivan with beaming grins on their faces as wide as those on the members of the modern day appreciative audiences. 

David Guest