HMS Pinafore

Written on June 6th, 2017

A Gilbert and Sullivan Delight

For fans of light opera, it can’t get much better than HMS Pinafore on stage at Stratford’s Avon Theatre. The British team of Gilbert and Sullivan produced many comic operettas in the late 1800s – and it’s always amazing how the political satire is still so appropriate.  Everything old is new again, often to our dismay.

Young Josephine, the daughter of Captain Corcoran, is in love with one of the lowly sailors on the ship HMS Pinafore.  The Captain, as commander of the ship, believes in rank and a strict class system, and therefore, forbids the romance. The Right Honourable Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath), First Lord of the Admiralty (yes, that is just one man’s title) is looking for a wife, so the Captain is pushing his young daughter to marry the much older man.  That way she is moving up above her class.  Interesting how it is wonderful for her to do that, but the young sailor she loves, Ralph Rickshaw, is not allowed to move above his station to marry her.

Sir Joseph comes aboard and tells how he became the Ruler of the Royal Navy with absolutely no ship experience, nor any knowledge of the high seas.

Gilbert and Sullivan were experts in satirizing the politicians of their day.  It’s amazing how that message stands up today.  Can you think of any politician with no experience or knowledge who goes around telling everyone how great he is and what a good job he is doing?  How did Gilbert and Sullivan know that they would have an apt parody nearly 140 years later?  It’s as if they predicted the rise of Trump.

Equally as pertinent today is the commentary on the class system.  The notion that the upper class must look down on those considered beneath them, is ridiculed in this show.  Again, this bigotry continues to rear its ugly head today.

Laurie Murdoch is hilarious as Sir Joseph, the blustery Ruler of the Royal Navy.  He is a bumbling fool with a group of followers (aunts, cousins and nieces?) presumably to stroke his ego.  Murdoch’s Sir Joseph makes a crazy popping noise when he doesn’t know what else to say, which gets a laugh every time.

Jennifer Rider-Shaw is the beautiful Josephine, in love with her sailor.  Her rich operatic voice is perfect for the role.  As the lovelorn sailor, Mark Uhre charms his way into Josephine’s and the audience’s hearts.  Uhre has both the necessary singing voice and comedic abilities.  Lisa Horner is hilarious as Buttercup, and Steve Ross is very entertaining as the Captain.  This outstanding cast, with a very strong ensemble, has captured Gilbert and Sullivan comedy as well as the music.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this production of HMS Pinafore, I was puzzled by the opening and closing. We arrived at the theatre to see a manor house, dated 1917, on the big screen.  Knowing that HMS Pinafore was written and produced before that (first staged in England in 1878 to be exact, running for 571 performances), I wondered why we’d jumped to 1917.  The residents of the manor are handed scripts and music scores and become the characters in HMS Pinafore.  When the operetta ended, they go back to being the original characters, celebrating News Year Eve at the manor.

This unusual play within a play is explained in the program.  We know from watching Downton Abbey, large manor homes in England were conscripted to be convalescent hospitals for those injured in World War I.  To aid in recovery, doctors, nurses and housekeepers, joined by the patients, put on shows.  So the lovely interior of the manor home becomes the good ship HMS Pinafore.  It’s a clever set up, and an interesting way to remind us that this show is more than 100 years old.  But perhaps it needs more explanation in the opening, for those of us who didn’t take the time to read the program upon arrival.

Bless Gilbert and Sullivan for reminding us that we haven’t gotten any smarter in the last 140 years. And thank you to Stratford Festival for producing this excellent and fitting conveyance for Gilbert and Sullivan’s message.

HMS Pinafore continues in repertoire until October 21st at the Avon Theatre, Stratford.  Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check

Photo: Laurie Murdoch as Sir Joseph, Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Josephine and Mark Uhre as Ralph.  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

HMS Pinafore
Book and lyrics by W. S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Lezlie Wade
Choreographed by Kerry Gage
Musical Direction by Franklin Brasz
Performed by Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Mark Uhre, Laurie Murdoch, Steve Ross, Lisa Horner, Glynis Ranney, Brad Rudy, et al.
Stratford Festival Production
Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario
May 31 to October 21, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

One Response to “HMS Pinafore” | Add Your Thoughts

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed the production but I am puzzled by so many reviewers that are concerned about the 1917 time setting. They keep asking why? I say, why not? If you read the notes you will understand. It is also clear in the staging what is going on. So what is the big deal? The cast from 1917 are doing their version of Pinafore with it’s slapstick comedy. Delightful.

    I really enjoyed Guys & Dolls as did most reviewers but not one has asked, “Why does Adelaide peal a giant ear of corn like it was a banana when singing, He loves me he loves me not.” Wouldn’t it make more sense if it were a daisy?

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