January 25, 2003: Gilbert and Sullivan, H. M. S. Pinafore

Evening. Savoy Theatre. D’Oyly Carte Opera Company

Where else, after all, for G & S than the Savoy? This was my choice for my traditional farewell-to-London farce, and it was a rewarding one. This production, directed by Martin Duncan and designed by Tim Hatley, dates back almost a decade, to 1994, and was last staged at the Savoy in 2000. It has been nominated for an Olivier award and has won other prizes as well. It is easy to see why. It is extremely well sung, brisk in pace, not at all gimmicky, and very nicely cast. The Josephine, Samantha Hay (who alternates the role with another soprano), has a lovely voice of surprisingly deep timbre — a real mezzo but with the high notes intact — and is very pretty to boot. She is capable of heavier stuff but yet gave this role her all. The Ralph, Joseph Shoulton, had the requisite lyric tenor voice, though he was a whole head shorter than the especially tall Saman­tha Hay. Sam Kathy, a very good singing actor, was a very entertaining Sir Joseph, who had a lot of fun with the part while nonetheless not camping it up at all.

The costumes reflected an unusual choice of period: an eclectic mix of late Victorian and frumpy 1930s. What was distinctive and quite comical about this production was that the sailors were almost all young men (the Boatswain an exception, middle-aged), whereas the numerous sisters, cousins, and aunts were — shall we say, of a certain age. One is reminded here of a phrase from the opera itself: “They might very well pass for forty-three in the dusk with the light behind them.” And they wore some of the dowdiest hats this side of Bucking­ham Palace. Hebe, especially, had a hat with two formidable feathers almost two feet long which at one point almost put a sailor’s eyes out as she whirled and walked up stage. These ladies mean business, there is no doubt about it, though at the same time they find being in the presence of vigorous young men an experience that carries a definite erotic charge.

The erotic charge was all too noticeable in the case of Della Jones’s Buttercup, who can’t keep her hands off these young men; she pinches at least two bottoms, to notable discomfort and surprise, and I for one was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to see such goings-on in a family type of show. Seriously, I thought this added a coarse note, and a false one, to a production that otherwise was beaut­ifully done. The lighting was really fine, and in the day-time scenes suggestive of crisp, sun-lighted mornings with the air redolent of salt breezes.

There was much choreography to the ensemble numbers, much of it rather intricate but none of it clichéd; I would call it asymmetrical and nicely varied, intended to bring delight and surprise more than just to count out the basic rhythm of the music.

I didn’t like the Dick Deadeye very well at first — a young man with a some­what raspy yet powerful bass voice, Gareth Jones by name. He was playing Deadeye’s cynical realism in more low-key a way than I would’ve liked (and than I have performed, having played this role myself). His makeup consisted of the same shade of pancake used by the other sailors, and his only distinguishing feature was what looked like an enormous “black” eye, done in a single shade of violet that came out to a point below the cheekbone. Gradually I grew accust­omed to this and ended up liking the performance. In the night sequence, in which Deadeye keeps interrupting the proceedings (“though the sky looks now serene, A thunderbolt” etc.), the director has him continually exit left and immed­iately come back on in order to sing his next phrase. This worked and got a laugh.

And I knew I was in England seeing this opera. On the rousing chorus “For he is an Englishman!” at the end of it, the man sitting next to me said, louder than he needed to, “Hear, hear!” And we all had a turn at hissing Deadeye during his curtain call, though not before that.

It all goes to show that the D’Oyly Carte company is still alive and well, after having sunk to the bottom in doldrums around the time Martyn Greene retired. I saw Greene (I may be confusing him with John Reed) do one of the G & S roles, perhaps The Mikado role of Ko-Ko, when I was a young man — or not so young, possibly — in New Haven, in the 1970s, I think. It was an enormous disappoint­ment, the whole company going through motions in a lifeless sort of way. I vaguely recall it had been billed as a farewell tour of the D’Oyly Carte company, about to disband. I remember thinking they really should wind it up if they can’t do any better than that. Somehow, I have now discovered, they have been galvanized back into life. Though this production has been playing in London or on tour of the world since 1994, it plays as if it just opened, full of life, spirit, and good humor. No deadly reverence for the shades of Gilbert and Sullivan here. They do them proud instead, and I am making a mental note to see whatever this company may be doing the next time I return to London.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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