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HMS Pinafore review

Theatre, Musicals Hayes Theatre Co , Elizabeth Bay Saturday December 14 2019
4 out of 5 stars
HMS Pinafore Hayes Theatre 2019 supplied
Photograph: Phil Erbacher
HMS Pinafore Hayes theatre 2019 supplied
Photograph: Phil Erbacher
HMS Pinafore Hayes Theatre 2019 supplied
Photograph: Phil Erbacher
HMS Pinafore Hayes Theatre 2019 supplied
Photograph: Phil Erbacher

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The Hayes Theatre sets sail with a reimagined classic

If you were trying to trace contemporary, Broadway-style musical theatre back to its source, a lot of roads would lead you to Gilbert and Sullivan. Their Victorian-era ‘light operas’ – comic plays with songs – are a blueprint for musical comedies made even now: social codes are mocked, a couple falls in love (a funnier secondary couple does too) and it’s all tied up in a neat little package at the end.

In this particular one, HMS Pinafore, the barriers of class are gently ripped apart on the deck of the Pinafore. Josephine (Katherine Allen), the daughter of the ship’s captain (Tobias Cole), is supposed to marry Sir Joseph Porter (Rory O’Keeffe), but she’s actually in love with solid, seafaring lad Ralph Backstraw (Billie Palin). He loves her too, but their love can never be. Or can it? 

If you’re of a certain generation, your best reference for G&S – and Pinafore – might just be the Simpsons episode Cape Feare, the one with the rakes; Bart distracts Sideshow Bob from murdering him by suggesting he perform the show’s entire score.

The more theatrically inclined might remember a not dissimilar tongue-in-cheek take on the opera, by Simon Gallaher’s Esgee productions – one of a larrkinised G&S oeuvre that, thanks to VHS and DVD, wound up in a lot of family homes. Plus, it ended with an “omegamix” of G&S numbers that you will probably never get out of your head. (You’re welcome).

With a cultural memory, then, of taking Pinafore and lovingly poking at it, Kate Gaul’s production now at the Hayes – arguably Australia’s home for musical theatre – is a logical, and wonderful step forward. Her take on the show manages to encompass all of these things – the gentle boundary-pushing of the original text, our local tradition of sending up the classics, and the meta-textual, pop-culture referential riffing of The Simpsons. And she does it all through a confident, unapologetically queer lens.

We’re talking queerness that’s conceptually and systematically embedded in the work, too – Gaul hasn’t just cast across traditional binary gender lines and called it a day. Camp is embedded in everything from Porter’s glittery nipples and the sailors’ droll semaphore choreography (by Ash Bee); Thomas Campbell’s Little Buttercup is a rich study in queer performance art; and Palin and Allen are, now, the butch/femme lesbian power couple of light opera that we’ve all been waiting for. Everyone has a certain self-possessed swagger; every element is a little more playful than you would expect, even though there’s great fondness behind the tongues in cheeks and twinkles in eyes.

Production designer Melanie Liertz keeps it all wonderfully lo-fi – how the production handles a scene where the ship sails across the ocean waters is a delight, and later, you might be undone by a few beach balls onstage – but her costumes are showstoppers. Sailor whites morph into sheer golden age robes, sequins, caftans, like a gay costume box exploded. These sailors – sober men and true! – are utterly at peace with themselves on sea, showcasing whatever energy they feel is most appropriate. 

There’s a sense of celebration here, of reveling in old comedy told through a knowing 2019 lens. And Gaul isn’t afraid to take her time, building to a joke, letting a moment hang in the air. She keeps us connected to the story, and that means the comedy is even more effective. 

Alongside Gaul, it’s music director Zara Stanton sets the tone for this production. The music is unamplified and the songs feel, deceptively, casual. We ease our way into them. Stanton is mostly seated at the piano, adding her voice to uplift the excellent ensemble. Cast members play additional instruments, and there’s a sense of community onstage that feels believable and right for a production playing with queer signifiers. Nate Edmondson’s sound design is supportive and sharp (keep an ear out for a little RuPaul amongst the soothing hint of waves – because why not?) and Fausto Brusamolino’s lights are having as much fun as Gaul and her cast.

Why stage HMS Pinafore at the end of 2019? Because it can be a celebration of living outside your expected social role. It can be a queer party. It can be funny and sweet, and clever. One request: if you bring this production back, can we have a megamix?

By: Cassie Tongue



Venue name: Hayes Theatre Co
Address: 19 Greenknowe Ave
Potts Point
Price: $55-$75

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