H.M.S. Pinafore, or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor was Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth collaboration and their first big hit when it premiered in London in 1878.

The nautical romp, which satirised Victorian England, still has plenty to say in its observations on the class system, status, hierarchy and equality. Structurally the bones of the piece are sound, and the perky tunes and gloriously witty lyrics with their famous tongue-twisters still raise many a delighted laugh. But played traditionally, G & S shows feel pretty dated for a 21st-century audience.

Bobbie-Jean Henning, Rory O’Keefe and Jermaine Chau in H.M.S. Pinafore. Photograph © Phil Erbacher

Not so here. Sticking faithfully to what G & S wrote (with the occasional trim, and witty lyric change), director Kate Gaul reinvigorates the comic operetta for an audience today, giving it a fabulous, fresh spin with her gloriously camp, glittery, cross-gender production, produced by Hayes Theatre Co.

The flimsy story takes place aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore. One of the able seamen Ralph Rackstraw – “the smartest lad in all the fleet” – has fallen in love with Josephine, the daughter of the captain, and she returns his affection. However, her father has planned that she marry Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who arrives on board with an admiring crowd of “sisters, cousins and aunts”. When Ralph and Josephine decide to elope their plan is discovered, but a surprise disclosure turns everything on its head.

Music Director Zara Stanton – who plays piano among other instruments – oversees some clever musical arrangements for a small ensemble, performed on stage by the cast, including Dominic Lui on violin. And, in a real treat, the music and singing is unamplified.

Gaul stages the show on a colourful set by production designer Melanie Liertz, which includes painted drapes, glittery curtains, strings of lights, and inflatable beach balls. Liertz’s costumes are also a dizzy delight, starting off with the sailors in white and Josephine in a pastel blue and pink trousers and top, before morphing into nightclub wear with sequinned shorts, a Carmen Miranda-like headpiece, fake moustaches, and Josephine in a pink showgirl outfit.

Gender is fluid. All the cast wear make-up, with heavy rouge, glittery silver eye shadow and a plethora of tattoos. Thomas Campbell plays Little Buttercup, dressed rather like a pantomime dame with a five o’clock shadow, while Billie Palin plays Ralph.

The overture feels a bit rough and ready, with some of the cast rather at sea on their instruments, but the show kicks in from there. Gaul has gathered a terrific cast that ranges from well-known performers such as theatre performer Thomas Campbell and opera singer Tobias Cole – here descending from countertenor to play Captain Corcoran – to several performers making their professional debut, among them Palin as Ralph.

Tobias Cole and Katherine Allen in H.M.S. Pinafore. Photograph © Phil Erbacher

Katherine Allen, who plays Josephine, Palin and Cole are the stand-outs vocally, all three of them classically trained. Allen, who is a recent graduate from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and who was an Associate Young Artist with Pacific Opera, has just the right shining soprano for Josephine, and really raises the bar vocally when she sings. She also brings plenty of zest to the character. Palin makes for a dashing Ralph, without ever pushing any kind of forced machismo onto her portrayal.

Cole brings just the right tongue-in-cheek touch to the popular Captain, who never (“well, hardly ever”) uses bad language, while Rory O’Keefe is an unusually young and handsome Sir Joseph – who has never been to sea but is now “the ruler of the Queen’s Navee”. Sir Joseph tends to be played by an older performer, often in doddering fashion, but here he makes his entrance with bare top and glittering nipples, before being dressed in his naval uniform.

Sean Luther Hall has fun and games as the scurrilous Dick Dead Eye, while Bobbie-Jean Henning and Jermaine Chau play all Sir Joseph’s “sisters, cousins and aunts” with savvy aplomb. Gavin Brown and Zach Selmes complete the talented ensemble.

Ash Bee’s fun choreography makes clever use of the tiny space, while the lighting by Fausto Brusamolino and sound by Nate Edmondson complement the exuberantly camp production.

Jermaine Chau, Bobbie-Jean Henning and Rory O’Keefe in H.M.S. Pinafore. Photograph © Phil Erbacher

The show ends with the cast signing a message with semaphore flags. Alas the semaphore that I once knew as a Girl Guide has long since deserted me and I don’t know what it said, but I suspect it relates to the glittery rainbow flag that descends at the back of the stage at the same time, and is a paean to love and be loved whatever your sexual persuasion.

Conservative, traditional G & S fans may find the production a tad too subversive to be their cup of tea. But most will be delighted by Gaul’s irreverent, camp approach that underlines the themes in the show, and gives the piece a contemporary, vibrant, deliciously saucy vibe.

H.M.S. Pinafore plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, until December 14


Subscribe to Limelight