Owain Paciuszko for EXTRA! EXTRA!

HMS Pinafore at the Union Theatre

Being my first exposure to the musical theatre of Gilbert and Sullivan I had little idea what to expect.

Aside from receiving some words of warning from friends, I was, I must admit, nervous about the show. I am neither a musical addict nor do I despise anything in which people burst into song, generally I just hope that the songs feel organic and, hopefully, memorable.

Unfortunately the first number is 'We Sail the Ocean Blue' sung by the Pinafore's sailing crew, and it embodies much of what is often derided of musicals. They sing about their profession, how tough and loyal they are, and it is almost embarrassing to watch. The cast are in fine voice though, bounding around the small stage with relentless energy and enthusiasm. But the thought that there is a further ninety minutes of this is quite troubling. Of course a musical can be only as good as its song, and 'We Sail the Ocean Blue' quickly transpires to be one of the weaker efforts in this production and the cast's tongue begins to fix itself firmly in its cheek. With 'Hail! Men-o'-war's men' the cast begin to play with the script, adding an almost surreal edge to the comedy which remains quite smart and lively. James Dinsmore gives a superb performance as Captain Corcoran, his physicality is almost caricature but his character somehow, in amongst all the extremity, remains quite believable.

That is, what quickly becomes, the magic of this production, it manages to balance both a knowing humour with an affection for its material. It seems to acknowledge how ludicrous and arch the script is without mocking it, it believes in itself and this confidence is visible in all aspects of the production from casting to costume. Of the sailors our hero is Ralph Rackstraw (Neal Andrews), he is in love with the Captain's daughter Josephine though she is far above his social station and is being groomed to marry Sir Joseph Porter KCB. Neal Andrews does an excellent job with a rather bland character, when surrounded by a fleet of eccentrics he manages to remain engaging and appealing. His fellow crewmen are a collection of great faces and voices, each gamely providing efficient stage management in amongst, and sometimes during, the tunes. Aidan Crowley looks fantastic as Deadeye Dick but seems a little restrained by the script, his character never getting the chance to really let loose with the villainy, though his song 'Kind Captain, I've Important Information' is a well staged piece that keeps the second act moving along when it's threatened by too many serious numbers.

Two performances however sweep the entire production away from even the strongest efforts of any other cast member. Firstly Alex Weatherhill impresses with his incredible vocal range and sustain, even moreso considering he's playing the three female roles (Josephine, Cousin Hebe and Mrs.Cripps). His first song really brought the audience to life, and all his successive numbers inspired spontaneous applause. Though he plays his roles with great dry humour he manages to, much like the play, retain a respect and truth to his performance whilst at the same time being quite ridiculous. Not, however, as ridiculous as Christopher Howell's absolutely wonderful turn as Sir Joseph Porter KCB, aided by the finest song of the show; 'When I Was A Lad'. He spits out his words with cartoon-like glee, Sylvester the Cat if he had attended boarding school, his face is contorted into the grimace of a maniacal ventriloquist's dummy and his costumes are a work of twisted comic genius. For the latter part of the first act the play is a perfect, camp treat and is near flawless musical theatre, it's hilarious, imaginative, it soars.

The second act has its moments, but the machinations of the plot and some softer, emotional songs, whilst sung well, are a little stale in comparison to the play's more lively elements. Still, director Thomas Southerland is consistently inventive in his choices, siphoning out Pythonesque and knowing humour in amongst the more lacklustre slumps of Gilbert and Sullivan's text.

Whilst Sally Brooks' choreography is wild and witty, and works beautifully with the simple yet effective musical direction of Magnus Gilljam, most notably on the delightfully arranged 'Carefully on tiptoe stealing.' But this is a real company effort, and all the cogs and gears fit snugly into place, working with great enthusiasm to craft a truly fun production.

I am not now a newly acquired fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, though the songs were well handled, the pace kept up and the characters a joy to spend an evening with, it seems to be clearly a case of excellent casting, direction and imagination that made this a real surprise, a little bit of a guilty pleasure. No matter what your leaning towards musicals there's a real chance that this'll slap a smile on even the most stony of faces.

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