IF you think of the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and ponder their connection with the often dark novels of Charles Dickens, you might say: “Nothing there. What’s your point?” But Opera Della Luna’s founder-director Jeff Clarke looked a bit deeper, considered the things they have in common – particularly Gilbert’s concern with social justice (and injustice) – and chose to set his HMS Pinafore squarely in the time of Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby.
This was a period of unbridgeable gaps in aspiration, wealth and life chances. An orphan child, placed in the less-than-salubrious hands of a “baby farmer”, would be lucky to end up any better than Dickens’ crossing sweeper Joe or the light-fingered Artful Dodger. So poor Ralph Rackstraw, the unwitting victim of a baby-farmer (who was very young, kindly and careless) finds himself at the bottom rung of the naval ladder … and in love with the captain’s daughter!
For those who are familiar with Opera Della Luna from their many appearances at the former Iford Festival in the exquisite 100-seat cloister, this is a first opportunity to see a company with a brilliant record of modernising G&S and other comic operas, but Clarke’s decision here NOT to update the story works a treat.
He is well-served by a talented cast, led by Matthew Siveter as a splendidly handsome Captain Corcoran, with a rich musical voice, Louise Crane as the saucy Little Buttercup, and Paul Featherstone as a thoroughly ghastly and hugely entertaining Sir Joseph Porter. It is very amusing to see the old roue with an eye for the handsome sailors, not just the pretty girls.
Georgina Stalbow acts the part of Josephine exquisitely and has a charming voice, although perhaps it is a little small for this theatre. She sang the demanding Josephine’s Song beautifully, but was slightly swamped by the men in the famous trio, Never Mind the Why and Wherefore – until the third encore when a hilarious Hebe (Lynsey Docherty) added her considerable presence and voice to the mix.
Docherty, well known in the Salisbury area as a fine singer and founder-director of the city’s Celebrate Voice festival, was a real scene-stealer – the different ways she found to announce that she was “crushed” were a particular delight.
As always with Jeff Clarke, the laughs and the pleasures are often in the tiny details – when Dick Deadeye (John Lofthouse) and the Captain are eavesdropping on the fleeing Rackstraw and Josephine, the “cat” which is blamed for the noises that spook the runaways is actually the cat-o’-nine-tails being wielded by the angry Corcoran.
The small on-stage band, led by musical director and pianist Michael Waldron, is excellent, and the use of the drummer to both open and close the show was a stylish touch.
HMS Pinafore is at Bath, on its debut visit, until Saturday 27th January, and is a treat for fans of G&S.
Photograph by Charles Smith.