The politics-weary audience at English National Opera laughs knowingly when multi-talented singer, dancer and actor John Savournin in his warm-up act with comedian Les Dennis signals the lampoonery ahead. Dennis is to play Sir Joseph Porter, no-talent office boy made good, now ruler of the Royal Navy. Thank goodness, sighs Savournin, those days of cronyism are past…
Much is made of the entertainer’s translation from Family Fortunes to the world of opera, but the joke palls. As an otherwise increasingly funny evening goes on, it is only his singing, more abject even than promised, that lets down an otherwise magnificent cast. His exhaustion in the endless repeats of a closing trio, however, is hilarious.
Far from exhausted is Savournin, one of the funniest men around. The talented director of Charles Court Opera, who also do brilliant G&S, he is a magnificent baritone to boot. As Captain Corcoran, in command of the titular Pinafore, he struts and worries, proud of his eager crew, anxious for his on-board daughter.
Elgan Llŷr Thomas (in blue jacket) is an engaging Ralph Rackstraw. Photo: Mark Brennan
A marriage to Sir Joseph would elevate the family. But she has her eye on common sailor Ralph Rackstraw, attractively sung by tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas. If only someone knew there was more to the Hugh Grant-like Ralph and less to upright Corcoran than meets the eye… Cue floating pedlar Buttercup, who nurses a terrible secret, and who is sung with robust wit by Hilary Summers.
This being Gilbert and Sullivan, we are assured the happy ending for which we have a greater appetite than ever these days. On the way, marvellous music and plenty of WS Gilbert’s smart one-liners.
Director Cal McCrystal, returning to ENO after the huge success of Westminster-set Iolanthe, clearly set about sprinkling the same fairy dust on this maritime comedy. With sprightly design by takis and choreographer Lizzi Gee he injects non-stop colour and movement into a show that, long-time lovers of G&S like me, will remember from slow and laboured productions of yore.
Driving that pizzazz from the pit is Chris Hopkins, with a frisky orchestra of English National Opera, while on stage the spirited ENO Chorus and stupendous soloists give everything they’ve got. But sometimes, you can try too hard, and from time to time McCrystal lets down Arthur Sullivan’s clever score, and his singers.
Alexandra Oomens is scintillating as Josephine. Photo: Mark Brennan
He fears that a modern audience won’t be won over by a sentimental song, and introduces some business with Buttercup’s bloomers that cuts right through scintillating soprano Alexandra Oomens’ first aria. Buttercup’s flop over the side also pre-echoes a much bigger gag later on. (Remember the know-nothing buffoon? He’ll be back, in a highly recognisable form…)
McCrystal undermines Oomens again, in her second big number, with the worst intervention of all – an insulting parody of an old hanger-on in Sir Joseph’s entourage of sisters, cousins and aunts. Bent double, trembling on a walking stick, always out of step, this is shockingly ageist, as well as distracting and infantile.
But occasional coarseness and crudity apart, the polished second act in particular is musical and amusing. There is the buffoon stunt, some fun with anagrams, and also a surprise: before the Captain’s tender song, which opens Act Two, a dance sequence that explains the invention of a cabin boy. His added lines are a mixed blessing, but this mini-hoofer has plenty of fans on social media.
At nine years of age, Rufus Bateman is already an old hand, having appeared on television and the West End stage. But most know him as an internet sensation whose his tap-dancing skills cheered up the lockdown world. In his ENO solo turn he is joined by the indefatigable Savournin (who then goes straight on to sing his big number) and a smattering of deckhands and female relatives, lifting the heart.
Les Dennis (left) as Sir Joseph Porter is no match for John Savournin's Captain Corcoran. Photo: Mark Brennan
From here on in we for the safe harbour of happiness, and that’s where we land. Bon voyage to all sailing on this gussied up Pinafore. Stow away now, if you can.
Performances are on 30 Oct, 6, 7, 12, 14, 17, 18, 20, 27 and 30 Nov; 3, 6, 9 and 11 Dec. There is a relaxed performance on 3 Dec
|What||HMS Pinafore, English National Opera review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
29 Oct 21 – 11 Dec 21, 13 evening performances and six matinees, start times vary. Running time 2hrs
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|