Grumblers might frown at HMS Pinafore for being a bit twee, but when done well it can be superb entertainment. This is absolutely the case in Stuart Maunder’s production for State Opera. While respecting all the quaint 100-year-old traditions surrounding Gilbert and Sullivan, this Pinafore is a sparky modern show that is carried off with exceptional skill.

As with the G&S Fest’s Pirates of Penzance, the recipe is swift and sharp. This show is a visual delight, it goes at a real clip, and the characterisations are superb.

The story is what it is, although there are some interesting aspects about Pinafore that actually make it quite a savage commentary on Victorian society; it accomplishes this, as ever with G&S, through caricature. But basically, Josephine is lined up by her father, Captain Corcoran, to marry an ageing top brass, Sir Joseph Porter, but instead opts for a strapping young sailor of low station named Ralph.

The way they are all caricatured – Porter, in particular – is as funny as a Blackadder episode. Quite unrecognisable from his gunpowder role in Pirates, Ben Mingay is truly marvellous as the ruddy-cheeked Lord of the Admiralty. In all his faded glory, he proudly recounts his rise up the ranks in “When I was a lad”, while perving on the sailors’ bottoms and mopping his brow. Mingay’s performance is so excellently camped up that you want to stop the show and replay it a dozen times.

Jeremy Kleeman’s Corcoran is so straight-laced, and his baritone so clipped and precise, that he is almost irritatingly perfect for this part. From the opening song, “I am the Captain of the Pinafore” to his very last, “No, never! Well, hardly ever”, he is suitably stiff and starchy. The only reservation is that he looks rather young to be Ralph’s eventual father-in-law; but when they switch identity in order to trick the Admiral into allowing the marriage, the mix-up seems even sillier.

Wearing an eyepatch and bellowing in Scottish brogue is Douglas McNicol as the maverick seaman, Dick Deadeye. Out of pure malice he connives to block the unfolding love match, but to no effect. McNicol is a winner in this outré role, just as he is as Major General Stanley in Pirates of Penzance. Hand the man a medal.

Uproariously funny: State Opera’s HMS Pinafore. Photo: Frankie the Creative

The most interesting characterisation is Jessica Dean’s Josephine. Although requiring no coloratura, Sullivan’s arias for her lean towards operatic in their emotional intensity; of all the singers in this production, Dean’s delivery inclines most towards opera. The result is that with her artful, expressive singing, she brings Josephine right into the centre as the one who has to make sense of it all.

Experience runs deep in this cast. Nicholas Jones looks and sounds just right as the wide-eyed Ralph Rackstraw, falling mellifluously into strains of love accompanied by flute. Antoinette Halloran imparts an intriguing allure to the “Bumboat Woman”, Mrs Cripps (aka Little Buttercup, with the dropped “T”), who – despite her lowly origins – is able to conjure enough magic to take the Admiral’s hand, no less.

Why do these characters continue to so enthrall? Probably because their histrionics and foibles are inside all of us. Each caricature in Maunder’s production is exquisitely drawn, touching a nerve as much as tickling the funny bone.

The State Opera Chorus ramp up the fun enormously as they in effect mock each character by repeating their lines. This fine vocal crew even manages to jibe the audience in “He is an Englishman” when they sneak in the line, “For he might have been… Australian!”.

Down in the pit, the ASO are a great delight just as they are in Pirates. Conductor James Pratt gives well-judged length and pliability to line, giving Sullivan’s score ample room to breathe while moving proceedings along at speed.

Hammed up G&S can be extremely tiresome, but this Pinafore is most skilfully done. You may discover you have secretly loved this stuff all along but have denied it.

Uproariously funny, it is absolutely unmissable. You may never have such a good time in the theatre as this.

This is Maunder’s gift to Adelaide, and to that we all doff our hats.

HMS Pinafore runs until May 20 at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

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