Gilbert & Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore”, their hilarious send-up of the English class system and the hypocrisy of some who rise to the top, can still make us laugh. Cal McCrystal’s new production for the English National Opera did not disappoint, thanks not least to superbly executed choreography throughout. The numerous bits of extra stage business, such as the birds and the shooting of an albatross, were well-judged and never over the top. Witty additions to the text by McCrystal and Toby Davies, such as “levelling up”, and the unexpected appearance of a well-known politician — no spoilers — enhanced the glorious rendition of “he remains an Englishman”.
So this was an evening to enjoy, to take us away from everyday cares, and a reminder not to take life too seriously. It was a far cry from ENO’s season opener: Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha”, dealing with Gandhi’s non-violent rejection of the British Raj.
Here the rulers and the ruled are supposedly all equals, according to the comic Sir Joseph, First Lord of the Admiralty — except, of course, for himself. Sir Joseph tells us how he rose from obscurity and, having barely been to sea, became “the ruler of the Queen’s Navee”. It reflects the British Victorian belief that, in the mocking words of a rhyme from the time, the thing of principal effect is character, not intellect. Sir Joseph, in a witty performance by Les Dennis, thinks he has it, whatever it is, and Gilbert & Sullivan give us room to laugh at his pomposity, as well as the merry chants delivered by “his sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts”.
This was fun, it made me smile, and the tacky, over-elaborate dresses of Sir Joseph’s female relatives hit just the right note. Excellent designs by the Greek designer takis, superb lighting by Tim Mitchell, and Lizzi Gee’s choreography were all a delight. The performance by 9-year-old Rufus Bateman as the cabin boy was sheer joy, and in the tap dance routine at the start of Act II when he is joined by John Savournin as Captain Corcoran followed by various sailors, the audience joined in to beat the time. It is very much to Ms Gee’s credit that she got the whole cast moving to her choreography with the music and with a precision that did the chorus proud.
Credit is also due to the direction of conductor Chris Hopkins, whose previous work for the ENO has included “Iolanthe”, “The Mikado” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. Superb singing and acting by the young Alexandra Oomens as the Captain’s daughter, Josephine, added to the gaiety. Most other vocal contributions were underwhelming, but it doesn’t really matter. This production, in which the Victorian humour of Gilbert & Sullivan meets the world of Monty Python, is hugely enjoyable.