“Stay close to your desk and never go to sea, and you can all be rulers of the Queen’s Navee!” sings Sir Joseph Porter, Minister of the Cabinet and First Admiral of the Admiralty (qualifications: clean collar, fine handwriting and various minor household skills) in HMS Pinafore. Swap HMS with the NHS, a warship with a nation in the grip of a pandemic, and you do not have to look far for current goals for Gilbert & Sullivan’s naval satire on class, two-tier systems, and professional over-promotion.
But the serious political business out of the way you can relax because director Cal McCrystal (if Iolanthe was a huge hit for ENO back in 2018) has no intentions of blaming the finished sharpened point in this absurd naval stump.
Beautiful scarves and outstretched pants, a symbolic seagull, lots of swabs and hornpipes galore are the things in this equally-traditional-enough new staging (elegantly designed by takis). It’s as colorful as a Victorian picture book, but distinctly more cheeky. A big turn gives a touch of West End pizzazz, solemnity immediately undermined by McCrystal with over-enthusiastic fog machine and sound effects.
The performance steers a smart course between then and now, acting and stupidity, glitter and am-dram nonsense. McCrystal takes a free hand with WS Gilbert’s text and inserts lots of new gags, many harmless (a stuffed cat; some recurring business with fondant fantasies; a naughty young midshipman with a nice line in anagrams and step dancing) and some somewhat less.
If the opening night’s audience was anything to go by, what people want from their G&S today is more family fun and fewer jokes about sex, some of which feel wildly misjudged.
Led by a loyal crew of ENO regulars (including Henry Waddington as Dick Deadeye and Hilary Summers as stentorian Little Buttercup), John Savournin’s captain Corcoran is happily good, his ragged, John Cleese physique a natural canvas for plenty of clowning. As the most natural cartoon on stage, he risks stepping on opera passenger Les Dennis (yes, it) if Sir Joseph starts nervously but relaxes as things go on. Give it a week or two and I suppose he’ll be a real jerk.
The young artists Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Ralph Rackstraw) and Alexandra Oomens (Josephine) sing the socks of the central love story, and Chris Hopkins conducts a snappy account from the ENO Orchestra. Beautifully packaged and delivered well in advance of Christmas, this opera pantomime is a cut above, even from the lower deck.
Until December 11 (eno.org)