I had better come clean here and admit that my knowledge of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan is scant to say the very least, extending to viewings of Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy (1999) and The Pirate Movie (1982), both of which I enjoyed. So the opportunity to review this visiting production at the Lowry theatre left me feeling slightly apprehensive, aware as I was that fans of the Victorian composers are a devoted crew who would instantly sense if I don’t really know what I’m talking about. To add to the potential pitfalls, Sasha Regan’s adaptation of the musical is not exactly a straightforward one. No petticoats and bonnets here. The gimmick – and I think it’s fair to call it that – is that every role is portrayed by a male performer. Yes, even Buttercup!
The setting is that of a World War II battleship and the action takes place almost entirely below decks, with rows of metal bunk beds as a backdrop. The intimation here is of the crewmen putting on an impromptu performance to keep themselves amused on a long voyage. Costume changes are achieved merely by ‘tweaking’ the sailor’s uniforms, by the actor’s body language and by the pitch of the voices. Ben Irish (Josephine) affects a startling soprano, while David McKechnie is totally convincing in the pivotal role of Buttercup. By contrast, Neil Moors as Captain Corcoran is blusteringly macho (the physical exercise routine he leads as he croons I Am The Captain of the Pinafore is a particular highlight while in the second half, a mostly acapella rendition of A Many Years Ago is actually breathtakingly lovely.
There’s no orchestra here, just a highly skilled piano player, who must qualify as the hardest working member of the cast. If not every word of every song is audible that’s more a problem of the venue’s acoustics and the fact that as far as I can see, nobody is wearing a microphone. The elderly lady sitting next to me, who introduces herself as a G & S fanatic, tells me it helps to know all the songs by heart, but she thinks the idea of an all-male cast is ‘a delightful concept.’ I tend to agree with her. Clearly, the audience loves what they hear and applauds heartily at the conclusion. Admirers of Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan will need to get themselves along to the Lowry pretty smartly if they wish to enjoy this as HMS Pinafore is only there until the 16th of July after which it sets sail in the direction of Salisbury.