Sophie Wright is impressed by her first ever experience of opera.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from DOE’s HMS Pinafore. I’ve had very little previous exposure to operatic music before (please forgive the lack of specific musical criticism within this review), let alone seen a live opera. HMS Pinafore was such a pleasant surprise – comedic and almost ridiculous in its plot. A love torn apart by ranking and class? The leader of the British Navy followed by his cousins and sisters and aunts? And (watch out for spoilers here) babies switched at birth? I wasn’t anticipating a nautical-themed musical episode of EastEnders but I am so happy that that is what I watched. In an homage to the first production in the Assembly Rooms Theatre over one hundred years ago, the production itself was an accessible and enjoyable experience.
The cast as a whole were absolutely the best aspect of the show. They were dedicated to their stage performances as an ensemble, moved slickly through choreography, and all managed to act cohesively as a group. Their singing, especially in the larger group songs, were fantastic to listen to for a layperson like myself. As unrefined as this criticism may be, I wasn’t expecting to hear such fantastic operatic singing in a student production. The time, the training, the sheer talent and skill in each and every performer was apparent and showcased to the best of their abilities. For that, they should be applauded. Rosie Burgering as Cousin Hebe was pitch-perfect both vocally and in her acting, delivering a performance that was entertaining, adding to the borderline farcical subplots. Also, I feel as though I must congratulate Henry Gould on his elastic-seeming face. I couldn’t help but notice his extravagant reactions, and while they occasionally became slightly distracting, it was, on the whole, perfectly suited to the ridiculousness of the show.
As for the individual theatrical performances, I didn’t believe they were quite as strong as when the cast were working together. Adam Brown as the Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter has some moments of comic genius, but when on the stage alone, I did not buy into his all-important rank and status. I occasionally had a similar issue with Henry Chapman’s Captain Corcoran, but ‘I Am the Captain of the Pinafore’ was highly entertaining, as well as his scenes with Catherine Bench as Mrs. Cripps. They had an excellent rapport on stage, inviting the audience to share in their mirth on stage.
Cameron Gergett as Dick Deadeye, while constantly dedicated to his performance every time he stepped on stage, came across as noticeably awkward in his physical movements. I couldn’t help but feel that he was still holding back somewhat from completely embracing the disgustingness of Deadeye.
While I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hannah Ambrose’s Josephine in the first act, she absolutely won me over in the second act – particularly in ‘The Hours Creep On Apace’. That song gave her the opportunity to really let her acting ability shine through with her musical talent, and she used the song to convey clear personality and intentions to the audience – one of my favourite moments of the production. She had considerable chemistry with love interest Ralph Rackstraw, played by Alex Akhurst. On his own, Akhurst’s slightly awkward physicality was made up for in a fantastic singing ability, a wholesome and earnest beauty to his voice that only added to his characterisation. Also, congratulations for having the best line in the whole show – ‘she’s my figurehead of life’.
Director Jennifer Baker’s vision was evident throughout the production. The set, involving a raised bridge-like section for added levels and height, and a series of brightly-coloured flags, was a fun addition to the production. However, I felt as though the aesthetics of the costumes were more suited to the show itself. The women’s dresses were pleasing pastel colours, and the striped red shirts of the sailors, were both cartoonish and perfectly matched to the tone of HMS Pinafore. It is a slight shame that the set in its entirety was not similarly garish. The choreography and blocking made the best use of the space, and I was constantly impressed at how well-balanced the tableau of performances were. However, I do question the choice to leave the metal scaffolding of the bridge-like structure bare, as it did detract from the twee and overtly theatrical environment otherwise created.
Overall, the technical aspects of the show were executed well. Technical director Josh Gordon’s lighting design was surprisingly nuanced in comparison to the rest of the show’s tone, and it worked effectively to connect the performers more closely to the more muted environment of the set. Despite this, there were a few errors in timing, and occasional dark spots on stage. I did find the singing a little difficult to hear clearly in the first act, perhaps an imbalance with the orchestra, but it appeared to improve in clarity during the second act.
The orchestra itself were very enjoyable to listen to. Again, I expose my lack of musical knowledge, but musical director Theo Golden appeared to confidently lead very capable musicians through catchy group songs and softer moments. There were some jarring moments with the string section, which mellowed out later on. Largely, they accompanied the performance with consistent musical ability, if missing a little polish.
I would also like to quickly add that I was unaware of the tradition to have the British national anthem played before the performance. Having now seen the whole show with its overtly patriotic tones, I appreciate its addition. However, I would like to thank and commend the production team in softening the ‘Rule Britannia’ message of the show somewhat, through constant emphasis of the production’s comedic nature. There was also a gentle invitation to audience members to sing the national anthem (rather than demand participation). It created a more inclusive and accessible atmosphere that I greatly appreciated.
DOE’s HMS Pinafore was highly enjoyable, and showcased a great amount of hard work. While a level of polish was missing from the production, it remained an accessible operatic experience, one that I believe thus benefited from its slight failings. Rather than feeling as though I required a level of musical knowledge to appreciate the production, HMS Pinafore became a more approachable comedy where I was actively laughing out loud. The entire production should be proud of what they created. And, if you’ve ever wondered if operatic theatre is for you, HMS Pinafore is excellent as a gateway.
HMS Pinafore will be playing in The Assembly Rooms Theatre on the 15th June at 19:30 and the 16th June at 14:30.