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Watermill - Pinafore Swing

21st July to 11th September 2004.

From The Times.

Three stars
Four years ago the little Watermill sent its staging of The Gondoliers to the West End, and, if good nature, good humour and good singing were enough to justify an evening, John Doyle’s version of HMS Pinafore would surely follow it. But one doesn’t have to be a founder member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Preservation Society to wish that those old blighters played more part in the proceedings. To convert Stephen Watts, Claire Storey and the rest of Doyle’s fine cast into a ship’s band in 1944 takes even more brass than the saxophones and trombones they play. Doyle is certainly no D’Oyly.

Remember Dear Little Buttercup, the “Portsmouth bumboat woman” who marries Captain Corcoran of the Pinafore? Well, she’s now a trio of sax players called the Butterflies, one of whom has an eyepatch and substitutes for Gilbert’s mildly villainous Dick Deadeye. Sir Joseph Porter, commander of the Queen’s Navee, has become an upper-crust pianist whose attempts to dominate Corcoran, his senior in rank and prospective father-in-law, seem pretty odd. As for the heroine, Gemma Page’s Jenny, she’s in love, not with Ralph Rackstraw but with an American sailor, Kieran Buckeridge’s Joe.

Are you following me? If not, I can’t blame you. Doyle tracks the original story but has stirred and shaken songs and characters into a weird, surreal mix. We still get “he might have been a Russian, a French, or Turk or Prussian”, but this time the hero is being congratulated on being American, not English. And some of my favourite numbers — Sir Joseph’s account of his rise to high office, for instance — are changed, trimmed or omitted.

Though I don’t know how they would fit on Sarah-Jane McClelland’s tiny Art Deco set, I was also sorry to lose Sir Joseph’s sisters, cousins and aunts. But there are compensations, especially for ears and minds more open than mine. If Sullivan’s tunes are often unrecognisable behind the swing and Gilbert’s attack on the British class system has lost much of its bite, some of the changes are good fun, some of the new lyrics witty and some of the music enjoyably ebullient.

But need Doyle have done so much to remind us that it’s 1944, not 1878? There are jokey references to Coward, Sinatra and Lana Turner and less jokey ones to Vera Lynn, Bette Davis, Bogie, Bacall, Hepburn, Tracy, Norma Shearer, Gracie Fields, the Crazy Gang, Mr Chips and even the forgotten bandleader Henry Hall. Why no Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin or Hitler? Search me.

BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE

From the Daily Telegraph.

G&S meet Glenn Miller


This is proving to be quite a week for the delightful - and seriously impressive - Watermill Theatre in Newbury, with both the premiere of this joyous re-invention of the old Gilbert and Sullivan perennial HMS Pinafore and the well-deserved West End transfer of its chamber staging of Sweeney Todd.

The man behind both shows is John Doyle, who, for several years now, has been quietly revolutionising British musical theatre in deepest rural Berks. He rarely has a cast of more than eight, and he entirely dispenses with a pit band. The performers all double up as musicians, singing in one number, playing drums in another, and blowing a mean trumpet solo in a third.

The effect is to create an astonishing sense of immediacy and intimacy on the Watermill's pocket-handkerchief stage, and a conspiracy of shared pleasure between actors and audience.

A few years ago, Doyle turned The Gondoliers into a Mafiosi musical. This time he has re-imagined the Pinafore as a troop ship called the P4, sailing the Atlantic in 1944, with the characters becoming members of the band entertaining the forces.

It's a charming conceit and works superbly, permitting both an enjoyable wallow in the past and many sly jokes. Doyle's witty script and lyrics are full of period references, not only to G&S, but also to Noel Coward and the Andrews Sisters, to Hollywood stars and the clipped dialogue of 1940s war movies. Yet the basic plot survives intact.

Just as importantly, Sarah Travis has rearranged Sullivan's music for a swing band, with familiar melodies given the Glenn Miller treatment, while the performers play, sing and dance up a storm in a show of continuous, tongue-in-cheek pleasure.

Captain Corcoran (Stephen Watts) has become the versatile band leader, while Joseph Porter, the Ruler of the Queen's Navee, is now the commanding officer and as delightful an upper-class twit as you could hope to encounter. "When I was a boy I caused a stir/As a choral scholar at Westminster," he sings, in one of Doyle's elegant revisions of Gilbert's lyrics.

Little Buttercup, meanwhile, has been turned into a sax-wielding vocal harmony trio of brassy Yanks called the Butterfly Sisters, while the love interest is played out between an English Wren and an American GI.

If the show has a fault, it is that Doyle tends to tell the story in rueful reminiscent monologues rather than present-tense dialogue, but it is a small blemish on a winning production beautifully designed by Sarah-Jane McClelland.

All eight members of this versatile company shine brightly. I was particularly taken with Kieran Buckeridge as the preposterously fey and languid aristocratic CO. Gemma Page is deliciously pert as the ever-so-English Wren; Ben Tolley struts his macho stuff to fine effect as the American GI; and Kerry James, Nina Lucking and Claire Storey neatly characterise the Butterfly Sisters.

Pinafore Swing is an achingly nostalgic pleasure from start to finish, simultaneously conjuring up the topsy-turvy world of G&S and the war-torn, movie-fixated big band era of the 1940s.

CHARLES SPENCER

Kick FM's review.

This is another John Doyle special, attempting to recreate the success he had with The Gondoliers at the Watermill in 2001. He’s taken the G&S favourite HMS Pinafore and moved it onto a troop ship in the Second World War, where the cast are a mixture of Brits and Yanks, a band of musicians to entertain the troops.

And as usual with Doyle’s productions, he uses a small bunch of talented actor/musicians to provide the music as well as the words. The story revolves around the captain’s daughter Jenny and her suitors Jack, the American, and Joe, the Brit, brilliantly played by Kieran Buckeridge.

Although I’m not a Gilbert and Sullivan expert, I think that G&S fans will find it very different from their usual HMS Pinafore, and it’ll certainly appeal to a much wider audience. The bottom line, though, is that the actors are excellent, the story is good fun but a bit contrived; the music reflects the swing era, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening but all in all it doesn’t have the pizzazz of The Gondoliers.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Pinafore set fair for another Watermill success

Pinafore Swing, at The Watermill, until September 11

You can maintain a prune face and carp at the changes to arguably the best-loved of Gilbert and Sullivan's works, or you can simply enjoy the latest in the series of actor/musician performances which have delighted Watermill audiences.

Pinafore Swing is not an updating of a classic; director John Doyle and musical director Sarah Travis have respectfully given the original their own special treatment and the differences - and similarities - are fascinating.

Bumboat woman Buttercup becomes Bee Bee Butterfly (Nina Lucking) who, with Hee Hee Butterfly (Kerry James) and Dee Dee Butterfly (Claire Storey) make up a wonderfully brash trio of saxophonists who "entertain the troops who sail the ocean blue" on the troopship P4 in 1944.

In contrast, oh-so-sweet Jenny Wren (Gemma Page) is the captain's daughter; pursued by a Noel Coward of a Joseph P. Porter (Kieran Buckeridge), but in love with a common sail.. .(sorry) an American sailor, Jack (Ben Tolley). John Doyle's clever lyrics of Joe's patter song could have come straight from that masterly weaver of words W. S. Gilbert.

Bee Bee, "a real pipperoo from Kalamazoo" has had a fling with "the big bandsman of the old P4" Captain (Stephen Watts) and just why is it so funny when she calls him Victor? We roared with laughter anyway.

Finally, there is Jim BytheWay (Steve Simmonds) a prosaic English tar fending off the advances of a wonderfully nasal Hee Hee.

Although it is wartime, the ship's company seem lost in their own dream world in the P4's striking Art Deco ballroom, but we learn eventually that Jim will be killed in action and like an ice cold drop of water running down the spine, reality returns.

This young, vibrant cast of actor/musicians bring a sparkling energy to Sarah Travis' score, lighting up such gems as the Lindy Hop and the Big Band sounds which alternate with the thread of the wistful original Sorry Her Lot winding through the performance. Sullivan may have been outraged, but he must have appreciated Sarah's musicianship.

The story is as slight as G&S always was, but this is an evening principally about music mixed with energy and fun - surely set fair for success.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From TheatreWorld Internet.

John Doyle and Sarah Travis have a history of successful collaboration at the Watermill: their adaptation Gondoliers won the 2001 TMA award for Best Musical (and a West End transfer) and their stunning production of Sweeney Todd has just transferred to Trafalgar Studios in London. But Pinafore Swing isn't in the same league.

It looks wonderful - a 30's confection of a ship's bandstand with ruched silk curtains, chrome and glass. The music isn't bad - some genuine Glen Miller swinging. But the adaptation and the conceit just don't hang together. Doyle and Travis have updated the G&S musical to a mid Atlantic troopship (I didn't think to wonder at the incongruity of a bandbox fresh set on a tired old troop ship until afterwards) where the Butterfly Sisters observe the triangle of love between American sailor, Jack, Wren, Jenny and aristocratic Commanding Officer, Joseph (whom for a moment appears not only to be able to swing but to swing both ways).

The Watermill audience adored the conflation of Gilbert and Sullivan and "their" music era - particularly the patter song constructed from Noel Coward titles. But until the arrival of something approaching a plot late in the final act the show rarely rose above a montage of period pastiche songs (good pastiche though) linked by some quick fire dialogue. Not Doyle and Travis at their best.

IAN WILLOX

From The Sunday Times.

Two stars
Whereas John Doyle uses actor-musicians to serve Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, his adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore destroys it, without putting anything in its place. The entire cast of G&S’s 1878 naval satire have been transposed into the eight members of a swing band, entertainers on an unlikely troopship in 1944. A few of Sullivan’s tunes survive, in sub-Glenn Miller arrangements, together with fragments of Gilbert’s mixed-up babies in a pram comic operetta plot, but it is not at all clear whether Doyle is sending up wartime nostalgia or wallowing in it. His four boys and four girls play beautifully on all manner of instruments, but what they are playing at is beyond me.

ROBERT HEWISON