139 years ago Gilbert and Sullivan's new comic opera HMS Pinafore or The Lass that Loved a Sailor almost bombed on its premiere at the Opera Comique in Westminster owing to a heatwave having discouraged audiences. On Saturday Mother Nature turned up the burners again in Chipping Norton, though the theatre remained remarkably unstuffy. I wonder whether librettist and composer would have recognised something familiar about its interior? The building began life as a Salvation Army 'Citadel' [church] in 1888, but the architect specialised in the building of Victorian Music Halls which would account for the its being perfectly proportioned for use as a theatre. By the 1950s it had dwindled into use as a furniture warehouse, before being rescued in the 1970s. Its interior now has a capacity of 213, and its Cotswold stone walls, its green-painted wood panelling and balcony, and its brass fittings and red lamps, is snugly period-authentic.
This is only the second ever performance by Abingdon-based Opera Anywhere of this operetta, created for their summer and autumn tour as a third G&S warhorse to inhabit the stable already occupied by The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. I think the G&S brand is having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. The operettas are being a mite overshadowed by the big, punchy musicals with mass effects and rousing scores – on-the-nose pertinence swaddled by the passage of time and theatrical innovation. Yet Buxton Opera House attracts audiences of 20,000 to its annual G&S festival. Opera Anywhere is surely performing a cultural if not also a social service by offering a corridor into opera for people perhaps put off by the elitist label, the cost or the inaccessibility of the full-blown music form. Thus, of the three couples to whom I spoke at the interval, two were new to opera (one had never before heard of G&S).
HMS Pinafore has a thin plot even by Gilbertian standards, but then these G&S shows are never about narrative. The setting aboard the good ship HMS Pinafore has been updated to, I think, WW2 vintage, with the back projection representing the poop deck of perhaps HMS Hood or the Renown. There's a female chorus of sisters, cousins and aunts dressed as Wrens, and a Smith and Wesson revolver doing duty for a musket. Taken together with later references to the weekly shop and Marks and Spencer, I had a slight feeling the updating left the show occupying a bit of a no man's land between something contemporary and a traditional staging.
The set comprises little more than a couple of sticks of furniture and the music comes from Louisa Lam on keyboard and Nick Planas on flute, piccolo and clarinet. I suppose two persons just about a band do make, but despite their best efforts the sound was a trifle thin and the effect necessarily just a little repetitive. Tristan – now there's a fine operatic name – Stocks played the status-challenged sailor with innocent optimism and had a clear, light tenor voice. There was a capable chorus of sometimes three, sometimes four sailors including the imposing, gravelly-voiced Mark Horner as the lugubrious Dick Deadeye, and an even better band of Wrens including the accomplished Katie Blackwell and Rachel Falaise makes a lively and ingratiating Hebe. The ever-dependable Vanessa Woodward was the ludicrously-named Little Buttercup, the "rosiest, roundest, and reddest beauty in all Spithead".
Of the principals, Josephine the Captain's daughter, in love with a common sailor, was a spirited Amy Webber with plenty of carry to her soprano voice, and Mike Woodward a pleasingly thoughtless twit of a Sir Joseph Porter in his white ducks. The highlight was Miles Horner's (who also directed) beaming Captain Corcoran, a genial and democratic officer, who tippy-toed round the deck in ludicrous penguin steps and later, pace Gilbertian topsy-turvydom, was transformed by a S. Yorkshire accent. His bass-baritone had depth and control; a voice that might have launched a thousand ships.
Good fun, and the remaining 12 dates in Oxfordshire of the tour will be well worth checking out.