Class assumptions, silly plots and merciless typecasting of women aside, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta never fails to deliver some pleasure. What never? Well hardly – no need to finish. You know the rest. WS Gilbert’s brilliant verbal ingenuity has weeviled its way into the language even if the origin is forgotten. Likewise, Sullivan’s tunes, once heard, are liable to tickle the brain for ever. The duo’s early HMS Pinafore (1878) offers a non-sagging two hours of catchy songs and choruses. English National Opera has chosen it as the first new production of the 2021/22 season.
Bumping into the Guardian’s illustrious theatre critic emeritus Michael Billington in the interval, I was taken with his suggestion that there’s a life cycle to G&S appreciation, from youthful enthusiasm to middle-aged disdain – that inevitable, sophisticated cooling off, yes, guilty – to renewed pleasure in advanced years. (Michael actually said “when you reach senility” but I’m not allowing him that.) There’s much to unpack in his wise words, not least the question of whether new generations, in thrall to TikTok or Clash or the latest app usurper, will continue to want these shows. Is there still an appetite?
ENO must think so. For its first ever Pinafore, the company has created a lavish and visually delicious staging built to last, directed by Cal McCrystal (responsible for ENO’s 2018 Iolanthe), designed by takis, choreographed by Lizzi Gee and conducted by Chris Hopkins. The jokes, many added, are eye-rolling and mildly smutty (you can do a lot with “poop deck”. They do.) One invention, an elderly woman who totters in demented fashion, is offensive and can be excised. The rest, in its physicality and ridiculousness, is innocently funny, occasionally sharp, and an ideal replacement for ENO’s Mikado (Jonathan Miller’s 1986 production), which has run its course.
The headline name in the cast is actor and comedian Les Dennis, as Sir Joseph Porter, “ruler of the queen’s na-vee”. There’s some self-defensive banter as to whether or not Dennis can sing. His patter song, When I Was a Lad, is half spoken, and Hopkins has to keep the volume of the crisp and lively orchestra down, but Dennis is mostly on note and tackles his new, if momentary, career shift gamely. In this fare you need one performer whose presence zaps up the energy; who can sing, and articulate beautifully, and who has that rare comic timing that makes a mere twitch of an eyebrow funny.
Here, that person is the bass baritone John Savournin (Captain Corcoran). Versatile in other repertoire, too, he has made a speciality of Gilbert and Sullivan, as singer and director. In his naughty, pip-squeak cabin boy, 13-year-old Johnny Jackson (alternating with Rufus Bateman), he has a perfect, pint-sized tap-dance partner. Their twinkle-toed hornpipe captivated. Elgan Llŷr Thomas and Alexandra Oomens are lyrical and fresh-toned as Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine. Henry Waddington, Marcus Farnsworth, Bethan Langford and, with and without clothes, Ossian Huskinson make witty contributions. The chorus excels. As Buttercup, Hilary Summers skilfully squeezes every ounce of comedy out of the role, which I suspect will get a good deal raunchier once the ad-libbing takes off. If the show, which has a long run, hits an iceberg, all that mast and rigging and dry ice can always be recommissioned for Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.
The exceptional string group 12 Ensemble, which performs without a conductor, was formed in 2012 by the violinist Eloisa-Fleur Thom and cellist Max Ruisi. At Kings Place, Thom was soloist in Max Richter’s Four Seasons: Recomposed, in which the British-German composer has discarded the majority of Vivaldi’s score and remade it: a ghostly silhouette of the original, strangely weightless and mesmerising despite an at times surging bass line pushing through. When the work was new in 2012, it caused a sensation and some predictable condescension, just as Nigel Kennedy’s wild, gamechanging version had in 1989. As it happens, tracks from that set feature on Kennedy’s new album Uncensored (Warner), launched to promote his autobiography of the same name. Cool-headed Richter and hot-headed “muvvafukkin” Kennedy – to quote the man himself – are as different as can be in approach. Both reinvigorate the music’s spirit.
Star ratings (out of five)
HMS Pinafore ★★★
12 Ensemble ★★★★
HMS Pinafore is at the Coliseum, London, until 11 December