Few 19th-century operettas exceed HMS Pinafore in style, wit and musical accomplishment; the principal candidates in English are The Mikado, and The Yeoman of the Guard, plus a few offerings by Lionel Monckton and Sidney Jones. Any foreign contender would surely be one of the champagne-soaked Viennese delicacies by the Strauss family or Carl Zeller.

Scene from the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company production of HMS Pinafore at the International Gi
Scene from the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company production of HMS Pinafore at the International Gi

The present production of Pinafore proffered by the Gilbert and Sullivan Company might be adequately summed up as ‘traditional’, being tasteful, charming, and void of gimmickry. The stage throughout is set as the quarter-deck of the HMS Pinafore; beautifully painted, the image is quaint and features little in the way of furniture, save for the ship’s bridge (decorated at one point by a handsome and topless sailor from the chorus) and doors leading to the Captain’s quarters.

The costumes are late 19th-century and range from the sailors’ simple white uniforms to the handsome attire of Captain Corcoran and Sir Joseph. The elegantly beautiful but tastefully modest dresses sported by Josephine and Sir Joseph’s extended family are pleasing to the eye and complement the colourful design. Finally, in a costume unique to her, Little Buttercup wears a ragged skirt and plain top with a white pinny, amounting to a most picturesque arrangement.

As with The Mikado of two weeks previous, excellence abounds in the performance itself though some questionable direction by Cav. Vivian Coates did not go unheeded. There is a lot of unnecessary movement in this production – amusing little dances that detract from the sentiment of the words and distort the focus of the moment. Also, the recurring problem of incorporating regional dialect reared its ill-favoured head. To my mind this is folly – Gilbert’s libretto is written in received pronunciation and it is best to stick to it. There are few exceptions to this in Gilbert’s writing, and as one might expect it falls to the villain to be outside the law – in the case of Pinafore the role of Dick Deadeye does need a little something to assist his own derision and support the disdain of others, and in this role Philip Cox was spot on.

The orchestra, directed by Timothy Henty, were on much better form than on previous occasions and right from the strains of the overture there was a greater precision regarding intonation and musical style, sensitive to mood and situation. Similarly, without any need for surtitles, the chorus met and exceeded my expectations of clarity, diction and balance, allowing the audience’s attention to be focused on the plot and humour as it unfolded.

Of the principal gentlemen, Oliver White (Ralph Rackstraw) gave a fine performance of Gilbert’s socially misplaced hero, complementing his acting with a clear, direct and lyrically suitable voice. Similarly, Ian Belsey’s Captain Corcoran was sung with assured technique and rich characterisation; his solo “Fair moon, to thee I sing” was especially fine, the middle of the voice being focused and pure. There was perhaps a little difficulty in the upper and lower extremities, though I am sure this is the remainder of his lost voice that prevented him from singing at all in The Mikado.

Husky-toned Sylvia Clarke breathed life into Little Buttercup with a pleasing plumpness in the voice that portrayed Gilbert’s almost gypsy-like wench admirably, filling the role amply with experience and finesse. Our heroine is embodied in the beautiful Charlotte Page, whose characterisation of the tortured Josephine, torn between love and duty, reaches its climax in the seven-minute solo scena “The hours creep on apace”, which she sings with emotional intensity. Only the uppermost notes of Sullivan’s vocal line were perhaps a little harsh – the result of over-compensation for the music’s difficulty, though I would suggest that Miss Page easily possesses the ability to achieve these notes without forcing.

Finally, Simon Butteriss has Gilbert and Sullivan in his soul – which some might consider an alarming affliction, but he copes with it remarkably well – and in his portrayal of Sir Joseph Porter little need be said except that not a word was lost, not a joke overlooked; in humour, sensitivity, slapstick, campery, clowning or melancholy, Butteriss raises the level of performance around him whilst still remaining the monarch of the stage. Simply, he is the very model of a modern Gilbert specialist.

This is a delightful production that leads me towards enthusiastic anticipation for the Gilbert and Sullivan Company’s final offering this year: The Grand Duke, a rarely staged treat beginning next weekend and featuring a stellar cast.

“Now give three cheers, I’ll lead the way: Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”