Christchurch Gilbert & Sullivan Society Regent Centre, Christchurch KD Johson
28 September 2023
As I usually do, I read the libretto of this 1878 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta a few weeks ago in preparation for this review. I then happened to bump into the First Lord of the Admiralty at the market (as you do😉) and he said “Oh, don’t bother with that – it’s all changed anyway!” … and some (not all) of it has.
The advantage of performing 19th century works these days is that they are out of copyright and a director can do just that. With some carefully controlled latterday productions you could be hanged, drawn and quartered for changing a few words or omitting a scene but you can, if you wish, make HMS Pinafore into a submarine and that is what Sarah Oliver (Director) and the cast have done here.
The stage at The Regent is transformed into a submarine with a projection screen, stage right, showing various nautical and sub-aquatic scenes throughout. A split-level set has a surface deck and conning tower at the high level, with a ladder leading to the crew room and bridge below. Sundry controls and instrumentation are on the back wall, including an animated green sonar display which whirls throughout. Later on, the lower deck becomes the Torpedo Room – with comic possibilities utilised to their utmost. Top marks are due to set designer Grahame Goodyer, who also created the screen projections, and to a long list of people who put it all together. On opening night there are a few technical issues with the lighting and some performers are left, literally, in the dark but these should be easily resolved.
It always amazes me how some shows at The Regent conjure such a large and talented orchestra. In this show, Ieuan Davies conducts a 15 piece ensemble which produces a very good sound without drowning out the voices of the apparently unamplified performers. Congratulations and thanks to all.
The members of the men’s chorus (9 of them I think) produce a particularly sumptuous sound in “We Sail the Ocean Blue”, “He is an Englishman” and other songs. The chorus numbers throughout are well sung and choreographed, although, at times, some of the words can be a bit difficult to identify among the music. The same can’t be said of the excellent voices of the principals: the interpretations and performances of Buttercup by Julie Gower, Ralph by Adam Davis and Josephine by Catherine Smith are really top-notch. The society’s chairman, Mark Ward, performs the show with one arm in a sling, due to an ongoing injury, but the script and cast-list are altered to reflect that and so Dick Deadeye becomes Dick Deadarm (a less than able seaman). I understand that his is not the only injury to have plagued this show and Susy Davies, as Hebe, limps throughout with a support on one leg. Fortunately, none of these injuries affect the musicality and entertainment from this excellent cast. Mark balances the villainy of Deadarm with humour while Captain Corcoran is ably portrayed by Rod Sones and Sir Joseph (the aforementioned First Lord of the Admiralty) by Brian Oliver. The part of Hebe, whose role the Director has elevated beyond the usual, is well played (and sung) by Susy Davies.
Some of WS Gilbert’s humour can be a bit obscure to modern audiences but this society has compensated with lots of modern humour of their own. A refrain of Yellow Submarine introduces one of the songs and at one point the crew creep furtively on-stage to Henry Mancini’s music to The Pink Panther – both to great comic effect. There is a drunken comedy routine with more than one bottle of champagne, as Sir Joseph and the Captain celebrate the forthcoming nuptials with Josephine, however, Julie Gower absolutely steals the show with her many comic routines and expressive facial contortions as Little Buttercup.
There may be some readers out there who are thinking that Gilbert and Sullivan is not for them – too highbrow perhaps, old fashioned? Think those thoughts no more! This is an entertainment for and of the modern era.
If you are hesitating about whether to go and see this, hesitate no longer – or you will have missed a cracking show.