(Photo credit: Tristan Kenton, 2021)
Cal McCrystal returns to English National Opera (ENO) for second Gilbert & Sullivan operetta at the Coliseum, sequel to 2019’s “Iolanthe” with “HMS Pinafore”. It’s an interventionist approach that surely won’t appeal to G&S traditionalists: not that they seemed to have disapproving looks on opening night! As a physical comedy consultant for the “Paddington” the films — along with the director of the West End hit joke “One Man, Two Guv’nors” —slapstick takes center stage. An old old woman totters, plastic seagulls fly overhead. The trio of the second half— ‘It doesn’t matter the why and the why‘—Takes place on a wildly spinning ensemble that seems to get faster and faster with each cover, until the breathless singers frantically beg the conductor to stop.
History, of course, is the best kind of nonsense. Love is – apparently – thwarted by class divisions and a sense of duty; rules backwards put everyone in a spin; there is a midnight appointment; contested filiations and couples summoned by the conclusion. Gilbert’s libretto floats the whole thing on a sea of distended rhymes and non-sequences which always have, to my ear, a strangely modernist atmosphere: a Sitwellian farce before “Facade”.
There’s a classic West End show shootout in McCrystal’s Show: Large choir scenes are choreographed with lively footsteps and reinforced by energetic dancers. The second part opens with a spectacular and accelerated hornpipe tap dance that arouses a storm of good humor from the audience. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is a delight throughout, and the simple, bright takis designs – two decks of a ship that turn to reveal an interior – keep the mood light in.
McCrystal brings a lot of innovative touches and salty innuendos. We talk a lot about “ramparts”, “topmen” and “shit bridge”. “It’s quite a swell here,” says a towel-wrapped Ralph Rackstraw exiting the lower decks: A source inside ENO informed me that some of the crassest jokes had been softened to save the blushes of the public. The dialogue has been rewritten for more spice and contemporary satirical touches: sneaky – and not-so-devious – references to contemporary politics abound, in keeping with Gilbert’s crisp satire on unfit for high office. There is a particularly delightful visual gag on a former journalist who became prime minister, punctuating “Because he is an Englishman”. There are also a lot of knowledgeable metatheatrical japes – “The conductor prefers to receive his applause before the show: much safer that way.” “Can we lower the tide a little, please?” – which keeps the show dynamic.
The jokes are plentiful and quick: perhaps embarrassing wealth in some ways. Sometimes the rapid-fire gags fall on top of each other and disrupt the comedic rhythm. At other times, the tween of crazed physical hijinks into some of the straighter tunes is a bit tonal baffling – such as in Josephine’s Violetta Lament – although many have enjoyed and will appreciate these kinds of wacky bathos and surrealists.
Les Dennis plays Sir Joseph Porter, a drunken and over-famous idiot. For non-UK readers, Dennis has become a household name as a game show host, but is also a serious comedian and established actor. He excels as a jester and he delivers vocally, although his patter may use a bit more definition. Vocals are rarely the top priority in these G&S roles for storytellers, but it really helps when there is a solid instrument behind the actor. He was a little tense on opening night – vocally and dramatically – but he will surely relax in the role as the show continues.
Bettors could come for Les Dennis, but there’s no doubt they should stick around for John Savournin’s Captain Corcoran, who also plays a bit of wit at the top of the series himself. Vocally, it’s in a woody and luxurious form throughout, with a plum pomp both in the speech and in the song that is. echt-Gilbert. “An English Tar” with Marcus Farnsworth and Ossian Hutchinson was a dark-hued highlight. As a comedic actor, he’s second to none, playing him like a wand in silly dialogue and moving with a lot of panache. Presumably, these are all skills honed to lead the bubbly “Pirates of Penzance” from Opera Holland Park this summer.
His tall and slender appearance makes his movements particularly pantomime and pythonesque: how many singers are there currently working in the main opera who can pull off a convincing tap? The dominant sense is that of a versatile team spirit: a key anchor point for Les Dennis and his colleagues, self-assured and alive in both music and theater.
Another McCrystal invention is a brand new character: a young midshipman, played by the irrepressible Rufus Bateman, a perpetual albatross around the captain’s neck. He eclipses the cast with his antics: putting shoe polish on the captain’s telescope; rearrange letters from HMS chasuble in absurd anagrams; accusing the captain of a penchant for “the F word”. He can dance too, starting the second half solo on stage: the kind of thing that takes real panache. One to watch.
ENO put two of its young Harewood artists at the center of the show: Joséphine by Alexandra Oomens and Ralph by Elgan Llŷr Thomas. The first makes her debut with ENO and sings with crystal-clear accuracy and true beauty in music that does not always have its full dimension; the latter was also beautifully authentic, sliding smoothly around the relatively undemanding vocal writing: so much less room to hide, of course. Both were naively melodramatic, as it should be, to make up for those larks.
Hilary Summers’ western brogue hesitated a bit every now and then in the dialogue – surely there has to be some other way to give some of G&S more proletarian characters a little flavor these days – but she had a fruity voice for its different numbers. Henry Waddington took a surprisingly nuanced turn as a foul-smelling Dick Deadeye, cruelly marginalized by his shipmates for challenging the established order, generating strange pathos. Bethan Summers does a quick lap as cousin Hebe, all balanced and talons.
The ENO choir – the sailors and Porter’s extended family – had a blast. Chris Hopkins’ direction was tastefully low-key, as it probably should be when the focus is mostly elsewhere, though they provided a lot of verve and polish where warranted. There was some nervousness on the first night: the dialogue began as the audience continued to cheer, a close-to-hostile family wardrobe malfunction, and an occasional breakaway line. The rhythm needed to settle down a bit: for the audience as much as for the actors, perhaps. But ENO surely has another raucous hit on their hands: and McCrystal has proven his flair for this repertoire. Maybe a “Fledermaus” afterwards?