HMS Pinafore and Trial by Jury

Date 21st February 2019
Society Godalming Operatic Society
Venue Godalming Borough Hall
Type of Production G&S
Director Ian Henderson
Musical Director David Wright


Author: Pauline Surrey

Premiered in 1878, Pinafore was G and S’s fourth operatic collaboration, and first international sensation. It deals with one of Gilbert’s favourite comic themes, the elevation of a totally unqualified person to a position of high responsibility – in this case the rise of Sir Joseph Porter from lowly office boy to First Lord of the Admiralty (who had never been to sea!)

Trial by Jury, premiered in 1875, is the only G and S one act opera, only 40 minutes long. Its theme is a ‘Breach of Promise’ court case, of which there were many, even right through to the 1960s, until a law abolished Breach of Promise in 1971.

What was different about this production of these two pieces was that Trial by Jury was inserted within Pinafore, in the guise of a dream sequence, during Captain Corcoran’s efforts to marry off his daughter, Josephine.

As ever, the GOS programme made a good read. We had in addition to the two synopses, two pages on the operas, the background to them and the themes within them. The cast profiles were jolly and informative. Credit was given to NODA and the work it does, and there was also a page about GOS itself. A fascinating piece on W.S. Gilbert, and his ‘Bab Ballads’ (his comic ballads from the 1860s/70s published in a magazine called ‘Fun’) told how these morphed into songs for Pinafore.

An impressive set of the deck of HMS Pinafore, well-crafted and sumptuous, all wood and rigging, complete with its shadow, was very impressive, very colourful. As Trial by Jury was inserted as the Captain’s dream, as he slept on deck, there was no need to change the scenery for the court scene. There was a basket, full of Buttercup’s dubious wares, that I really wanted to take a peek into myself! The ship’s hatch placed in the middle of the deck formed a useful focal point, where people could sit, where items could be placed.  Lighting was appropriate throughout.

There were sumptuous costumes throughout for the ladies; jolly sailor suits for the Tars; elegant uniforms and headgear for the Captain and Sir Joseph, even if the latter’s wig was a little comical.  When formality required, the sailors donned uniform jackets over the sailor suits, and as jurors during the trial scene they sported a jolly variety of waistcoats, which fascinated. Simple and effective.

I was also fascinated by the long, and so elegant gloves the ladies wore, which came into their own in the dream sequence, as hands were wafted about. All different colours and materials – ah, memories of my childhood, my mother had a drawer full of them! The ladies also had a beautiful array of headgear, tiaras and hats with colourful long feathers. Our plaintiff charmed in an exquisite bridal gown too.  A feast for the senses, these GOS productions.

The 22 piece orchestra was ably directed by David Wright, with a good balance of sound, never obscuring, but complementing the fine singing of chorus and soloists.

The curtain opens onto the colourful set, and we met the Jolly Tars, singing of life at sea. Buttercup came aboard, trying to sell her snuff and backy, all to no avail, in a very amusing scene where her wares were sniffed at and discarded by the picky sailors. Buttercup’s rendering of the ever-popular ditty:  ‘I’m called Little Buttercup’ brought us all on board

The welcome appearance of Captain Corcoran on stage was a key moment. Simon Wilson has the voice and presence to capture everyone’s full attention, and his rendition of ‘I am the Captain of the Pinafore’ was a joy!

As was the entrance of Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, and his entourage, all those sisters and those cousins and those aunts, who in amusing fashion crossed the auditorium in procession before entering the stage. First the ladies, and there seemed to be so many of them, they just kept on coming (did they go round twice, I wonder?), followed by Sir Joseph himself, in all his regalia. Sir Joseph gave us a splendid ‘I am the ruler of the Queen’s Navee’, accompanied by the wonderful ladies of the chorus, led by Cousin Hebe. Marvellous! Alec Evans excelled in the role of Sir Joseph, and it mattered little that, as I discovered to my surprise in the interval, he is still in his twenties!

After the interval, the director came on stage to explain the insertion of Trial by Jury, as Captain Corcoran’s dream. This was welcome, as many of us had not had a chance to peruse our programmes before the start of the evening’s proceedings.

Trial by Jury is a highly amusing piece, but is therefore of course dependent on the acting skills of the three main protagonists, the Defendant, the Plaintiff and the Judge. Here we were in safe hands. Richard Hales, as the jolly and nonchalant Defendant, was superb, full of action, he really used the stage. He used his eyes, (they twinkled), his shoulders (they shrugged frequently), his head (side-long glances) and copious amounts of simple logic, before burying his head, completely untroubled, in his newspaper. A brilliant performance. The Plaintiff, in her beautiful wedding gown, delighted with her stunning voice, her facial expressions and womanly wiles. Petronella Kereszturi was excellent in this role. Richard Gun Cuninghame as the Judge was also in fine voice, and made a good, rather impatient and somewhat unprofessional judge, as he decided to marry the Plaintiff himself!

And so we returned to Act II of Pinafore. As always, the clever plot delighted. Hebe has loved her cousin, Sir Joseph, unrequitedly for many years. And here was inserted oddly into this Pinafore the old music hall song ‘Why am I always the bridesmaid, never the blushing bride’, which dates from 1917. Unusual.  However, GOS’s Hebe, Nora Price, with her stage presence, her acting skills and her marvellous voice gave us a wonderful rendition of this song and brought the house down! 

On that note I will finish. Nothing more needs to be said. A great cast, wonderful music, fine voices, chorus and soloists alike, a super evening. So GOS has its new director, new ideas abound, and we still enjoy some of the finest G and S performers around. Hooray for Godalming Operatic Society!