First performed in London in 1878, H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor was written by Arthur Sullivan (music) and W.S. Gilbert (book), a team whose comic operettas are a theatrical mainstay well over 100 years after their first staging. British academic and author Ian Bradley has described Gilbert and Sullivan as “the principal begetters of what has almost certainly been the dominant theatrical genre for the 20th century, and arguably its most distinctive cultural icon, the musical.” Without their comic operettas, he argues, “people would never have had Fiddler on the Roof, Cats, or The Lion King.”

H.M.S Pinafore is the first Gilbert and Sullivan work to appear on stage at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co. A smart satire of the social hierarchy in Victorian England, this is a story of mistaken identity and class warfare. Highly accomplished director Kate Gaul (making her Hayes debut) has set out to create a version of the popular piece that is “re-imagined, gender-bending, hyper-theatrical and kinky” – and the final product certainly delivers on all fronts.

Set in the mid-19th century, H.M.S. Pinafore introduces audiences to Captain Corcoran (Tobias Cole) of the good ship Pinafore. His daughter, Josephine (Katherine Allen), is in love with a magnanimous sailor of lower social status, Ralph Rackstraw (Billie Palin). However, Captain Corcoran is determined that she will marry Sir Joseph Porter (Rory O’Keeffe), the First Lord of the Admiralty who has risen through the naval ranks despite completely lacking in qualifications.

Josephine and Ralph rail against the status quo, declare their love for each other and decide to elope. As expected, Captain Corcoran is infuriated, as is Sir Joseph when he subsequently learns of the star-crossed lovers’ plan. But the disclosure of a long-kept secret throws a spanner in the works and drastically alters outcomes for all concerned.

In a bright, high camp, adeptly performed presentation of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, Gaul has accentuated the timeless music and text, while emphasising the incongruity of arbitrary class, gender and status-based hurdles in a contemporary context. None of the humour is sacrificed, nor the music subordinated, but rather coloured with funny local references in tightly harmonised numbers that can soar.

Melanie Liertz’s simple but visually appealing set locates us effectively and facilitates the easy movement of actors and musicians around the space. Similarly, costumes are often simple but elegant and the makeup beautiful. Fausto Brusamolino’s lighting, meanwhile, adds its own colour and a location in time, aptly reflecting its 19th century roots.

Those aboard the Pinafore are all quick to show their fitness for the task. Cole is a natural fit for the patrician Captain Corcoran, while Thomas Campbell is an audience favourite with his skilled performance as Little Buttercup. Sean Luther Hall lends presence to the frank and unfortunately named Dick Dead Eye, and Palin is terrific in the role of Rackstraw – a role traditionally played by a male actor. As well as skilfully acting the part, Palin is in good voice.

A standout vocal performance comes from Allen as the ingenue Josephine. Her euphonious soprano is one of this production’s greatest assets, particularly performing ‘Sorry Her Lot’ and ‘The Hours Creep on Apace’. O’Keeffe is another accomplished performer, showcasing his scene-stealing comedic skills with a very funny portrayal of Sir Joseph Porter.

Unusually for productions staged at the Hayes, the music and vocals in H.M.S. Pinafore are unamplified. Piano player and music director, Zara Stanton, leads a small group of players, who meld seamlessly into onstage activities and provide ample backing to the talented vocalists. Moments of harmonisation across the two-hours are consistently highlights. And when it comes to the choreography, Ash Bee’s choices fit the bill, particularly the flag waving scenes.

Capping off what has been another wonderful year for Sydney’s most exciting musical theatre venue, Hayes Theatre Co’s H.M.S. Pinafore is a sharp and vibrant reinvention of a work from the canon that is both entertaining and consequential in a contemporary world. Recommended.

Photo credit: Phil Erbacher


Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 8 November 2019
Times: Mon 6.30pm | Tues – Sat 7.30pm | Wed 1.00pm | Sat 2.00pm
Running time: Approximately 2 hours including interval
Bookings: | (02) 8065 7337