The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Gilbert & Sullivan
For the archive we file reviews of several past London productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.
H.M.S. Pinafore Savoy
Theatre, Spring 2000
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company doing Gilbert and Sullivan at the Savoy Theatre - it just doesn't get much more English than that. Of course, it is the several-times-rebuilt Savoy and, for that matter, the several-times-rebuilt D'Oyly Carte -- and, for that matter, a rebuilt Pinafore. But in every case the change is for the better.
The Savoy is one of London's most beautiful small theatres. The D'Oyly Carte, which fell on hard times a while back after slipping into dusty museum-piece reproductions of tired old stagings, has been rejuvenated.
And Pinafore, trimmed a bit, updated a bit (to the 1920s), and sparklingly directed by Martin Duncan, is a delight. This is the one with Poor Little Buttercup and the Ruler of the Queen's Nay-vee, and Never Mind the Why and Wherefore. It's the one about earnest sailor Ralph Rackstraw, who loves his noble captain's daughter, who's too far above his station until a just-before-the-final-curtain confession by Buttercup reveals his true identity.
The current production, first staged in 1994, hits almost exactly the right mark somewhere between reverence and ironic send-up. The choruses are the best I've ever seen in a G&S production, the men moving effortlessly from butch singing to chorus-boy dancing in Lindsay Dolan's witty choreography, the Sisters and Cousins and Aunts cleverly individualised.
The principals are perhaps a bit less wonderful. It is part of the convention that the lovers be colourless, but Yvonne Barclay and Joseph Shovelton (one of two couples alternating the roles) are particularly bland. Though the both sing beautifully (Like many in the cast, their background is opera more than musical theatre), it is only in the Why and Wherefore trio that she shows much personality.
Tom McVeigh is spot-on as the noble-but-dense Captain. Sam Kelly as the landlubber Naval Lord is more comedian than singer, and his performance could stand more comic shtick. The same is true of Martin Nelson's Dick Deadeye, who could be more moustache-twirlingly villainous; and Jill Pert, who plays Buttercup with a welcome hint of Mae West that could be broader.
And there's no amplification. Let me say that again: there's no amplification! There's no credit to a "sound designer." They don't wear silly microphones taped to their foreheads or cheeks. Those are real, human voices you hear. And if that means you occasionally have to listen hard to catch every word, fine. These are, after all, some of the cleverest lyrics ever written, and you should make a bit of effort to appreciate them.
Pinafore does make some demands on you. It is an elegant miniature, not a grand spectacular. You have to put aside any desire for falling chandeliers and the like, and attune yourself to little delights.
If the idea of an anthem to the hero's excellent taste in choosing to be born English tickles you; or if you can enjoy the multiple layers of satire in Sir Joseph's account of his rise from office boy the Naval Lord; or if Sullivan's now-sprightly, now-beautiful music sticks in your mind, you'll love it.
The Mikado Savoy
Theatre Autumn 2000, then tour
Pop down down the Strand one of these evenings and you'll get a chance to witness a bit of theatrical history in the making. This latest version of Gilbert and Sullivan's evergreen musical (well why not? - time to leave the term 'opera' to the Wagnerites) ensures that D'Oyly Carte's triumphant return after many years absence to its spiritual home, the Savoy Theatre, will be at the vanguard of a much-needed revival of G&S classics for years to come.
For those of you who haven't yet caught the show live or Mike Leigh's film - released earlier this year - here's a quick plot set-up: the Mikado's son Nanki-Poo, disguised as a minstrel, woos the fair Yum-Yum, who is betrothed to the much older Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko. An impending visit from the great Mikado throws Ko-Ko into panic since he has been woefully remiss of late in the beheading department. It therefore seems convenient for all concerned to see Nanki-Poo wed Yum-Yum so long as he agrees to be executed a month afterwards.
Colin Lee is a focused Nanki-Poo balancing romantic lead with humour and a fine voice while Jaqueline Barsey's Yum-Yum, although a little shrill, is suitably dizzy and funny with it.
Richard Suart's Ko-Ko is both manically humorous and sympathetic at the same time. His Little List number is pertinently updated and includes pet hates such as 'dotcom-ists', microcyclists and crop-geneticists. As his bureacratic counterpart Royce Mills produces a masterfully pompous top official Pooh-Bah, playing unashamedly to the crowd and deserving every laugh.
It's not all that seamless, however. Deborah Hawksley gives an energetic performance as Katisha, the distinctly unbeautiful older woman who takes advantage of the law to coerce Nanki-Poo into becoming her unwilling husband, yet to these untutored ears she gratingly warbled as if she'd just come off the set of The Ring Cycle.
Although placed in a Japanese setting, the characters and situations are blatantly British - in fact, a blistering satire of all things bureaucratic. The show's design and wonderful costumes are accordingly a dazzling mix of kimono, headknot and City gent pinstripe, and there's even one point where the Houses of Parliament complete with Big Ben to form a magnificent backdrop.
Earlier this year on the same boards, we had the chance to experience a ripping HMS Pinafore - a trifle overcamp yet restrained enough to allow its natural drama, humour and melodies to reach out to fans old and new. This second offering, no doubt emboldened by the welcome the nautical farce (now deservedly touring) received, has clearly had a sizeable budget lavished on it and not a penny has been wasted.
A classic night out for the modern theatregoer, an absolute must-see - and remember that every song's a hit.
The Pirates of Penzance (or: The Slave Of Duty)
Savoy Theatre Spring 2001
Aside from being one of Gilbert and Sullivan's more accomplished works and that, for copyright reasons, it premiered in 1879 in New York, rumour has it that The Pirates Of Penzance holds the distinction of being the world's first internet 'web opera' (please turn now to your search engine of choice to test the claim's veracity).
While not as sublimely farcical as HMS Pinafore (written the previous year) nor conceptually perfect as the later Mikado, Pirates is an extraordinarily accessible work. Each song's a hit, a gag in every line, the plot teetering majestically between a single, gloriously appalling pun and an equally unlikely paradox.
This is the one which starts on a rocky sea-shore on the coast of Cornwall, where young Frederic is coming to the end of his apprenticeship (embarked upon because when his dad said get him a job as a sea 'pilot', Ruth the Maid heard 'pirate' - don't blame me, I just report it) with the notorious but somewhat less than successful pirates of Penzance. Anyway, suddenly a gaggle of the daughters of Major-General Stanley descend on the island for a beach party and one thing leads to anotherŠ
In the lead role of Frederic, Tim Rogers has problems in projecting both his spoken and sung parts, but an undeniably fine voice combined with matinee good looks mean you can probably forgive him. Charlotte Page's Mabel suffers similarly, but her ballad Poor Wandering One is as good as any I've heard and the duo compensate with a delightful How Beautifully Blue The Sky, with the massed daughters lending humour with twirling parasols and a peeved weather report.
But like all good swashbucklers, it's the supporting characters who really make the show. As the harried yet wily Major-General, Royce Mills (in a hat-trick appearance for the company's three productions so far) plays again shamelessly to the stalls and gods and is in better voice than ever. His I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General demonstrates why this word fest is a timeless musical masterpiece and why he is must now be considered our foremost apologist for G&S comedy if not a master of breath control.
James Cleverton's Pirate King cuts a dash worthy of Errol Flynn, while Patti Allison's rejected maid Ruth bounds back into action with balls to match those of her pirate comrades. Gareth Jones creates an imposing Sergeant of Police but is subdued in leading that paean to public service When A Felon's Not Engaged In His Employment. Suffice to say that all the pirate choruses are rousing to a man.
The orchestration is spot-on, the dialogue snappy and the vocal sections fluid (choreography is more a matter of controlled movement in view of the excellently large cast). The costumes are lavish and the wit sparkling. Which all in all makes Pirates worth every penny of the price of admission.
With Mills and producer Raymond Gubbay firmly at the helm, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company has happily proved that it is no flash in the pan in introducing Gilbert and Sullivan to the 21st century. Most likely they've got Yeoman Of The Guard or The Gondoliers in mind to follow - but a touch of Patience anyone?
Theatre Autumn 2001
For as long as Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas were protected by copyright, revivals generally had to follow the originals slavishly, and only a very few examples of tinkering (like the 1940s Hot Mikado) were permitted. But now it's open season, and London is getting to see one of the wilder and more inventive of the new-style G&S productions in this transfer from Berkshire's Watermill Theatre.
The original Gondoliers is the tale of a missing prince who was sent as a baby to a Venetian family, where he was raised with their own son and nobody quite remembers which is which. With his father dead, and a duke's daughter to whom he was contracted as a baby now expecting to be the new queen - not to mention the fact that the two Venetian brothers have both just married - are you following any of this? You're not really supposed to; like all of Gilbert's librettos, it was just a way of making complications that could be sorted out by the end, and would be an excuse for some songs.
OK, this time around, the heir to an Italian mafia empire is believed to be one of the two supposed sons of a London restauranteur, married as a baby to the daughter of a Chicago Don. But the two Londoners have just married two waitresses, and the American girl is in love with her bodyguard. You don't have to know the original to guess how things will turn out and, as in the original, the fun is to be had along the way.
I don't want to go overboard in praising this. It's not the greatest musical since My Fair Lady. But it is such a high-energy, fast-moving romp that even the most curmudgeonly of Gilbert and Sullivan purists would have difficulty resisting its appeal, especially since it has its tongue so firmly in its cheek it's a wonder anyone can sing.
Well, they can all sing, and dance, and what's more, everyone in the cast of eight plays at least two musical instruments, so that, in or out of character, they wander about the stage (in John Doyle's fluid direction and choreography) accompanying the songs. Probably those familiar with the original will get more of the in-jokes along the way, particularly in Sarah Travis's witty re-arranging and rewriting of the songs. But even a G&S neophyte can enjoy the way the Chicago family's songs have a 1940's jazz flavour, the Italian numbers sound a bit like Lloyd Webber, and the British characters stick closest to Sullivan's original arrangements. One might even catch them cocking a snook at that other musical around the corner, as one hears a distinct ABBA-type sound, most notably in the climactic "Dance a Cachucha."
The cast double and redouble roles so skilfully that it is a bit of a surprise how few of them there are at the curtain calls. Rebecca Arch and Josephine Baird, as the newlywed waitresses, are equally at home in ingenue sweetness and incipient-harridan brassiness, while Elizabeth Marsh brings impossibly long legs and the languid bearing of a Fosse dancer to the American child-bride. Karen Mann has fun playing two very different matriarchs, and also blows a mean trumpet.
The male roles are a bit less clearly defined, but Christopher Dickens and Eddie Burton are attractive as the not-very-bright but cheerily adaptable brothers, Mark Crossland gives some presence to the underwritten role of the bodyguard, and Mike Afford finds comic meat in the Duke of Plaza-Toro figure, the down-at-heels Chicago mafioso.
Again, I don't want to push this too hard. Its virtues are pleasant more than overwhelming. But I would certainly recommend it to someone looking for an uncomplicated bit of entertainment on a summer's evening.
Theatre Spring 2002, then tour
Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe is the one about fairies in the House of Lords - hence the witty subtitle "The Peer and the Peri" - and its debut in 1882 scores highly on G&S trivia points: it was the first new opera to play D'Oyly Carte's just opened Savoy Theatre (Patience had opened there after transferring from the Opera Comique), Sullivan was knighted early in the run (Gilbert, whose words mercilessly lampooned the Establishment, wasn't - for another 20 years), and we got a new word - fairy-lights - named after the new-fangled battery-driven lights worn by the fairies.
The fairies in question are not happy ones over the banishment of their sister Iolanthe for marrying a mortal and having a child. That child, Strephon, is now a young man, in love with Phyllis, a "Ward in Chancery" (you'll have to work that one out for yourself) who is in turn highly sought after by a gaggle of peers in the House of Lords.
The tale is a delightful one - and it is this that has made the opera such an enduring favourite with the public since artistically it's hardly a ripper. Although there's room for argument as to the hit status of particular songs or routines, this cannot hide the fact that the music while accomplished is stodgy (all those knowing Wagnerian leitmotifs) and that the book is patchy, cut to shreds as it was in the original production.
Indeed, Sullivan's score exudes little of the lush musicality of its immediate predecessor Patience while Gilbert's lyrics merely hint at the sublime acidity that was to follow in The Mikado. In a way this is reflected in this production which lacks much of the dazzle and slickness that has characterised the other offerings in D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and Raymond Gubbay's new series of G&S works.
Iolanthe is a deceptively simple piece and music director John Owen Edwards and director Martin Connor should have put their heads together a while longer. Too many grand opera voices are permitted to blunt G&S's trademark subtleties, further muddied by keeping the pointless concatenation of songs in the middle of Act II as Phyllis gradually extracts herself from her noble suitors. After all, things positively dazzle when the light of dialogue shines on the proceedings.
Highlights are indisputably the two major comic roles. Jill Pert's Queen of the Fairies is a matriarch of Wildean proportions, and Royce Mills, better cast as the Lord Chancellor in an ideal world, makes a storming Private Willis, squeezing laughs from each gag, pun or droll observation long after you'd think there be no more. Between them they save the show from acceptable mediocrity, supported of course by the sumptuous array of faux Victorian costume that so perfectly helps to set up the comic situations throughout.
As the Lord Chancellor, Paul Bentley is neither forceful enough nor witty, although he redeems himself with an energetic if workman Nightmare Song. However, David Fieldsend and Gareth Jones are interchangeable as the Earls Tolloller and Mountararat while Paul A Heywood seems lost as Strephon and - the wardrobe department should be alerted - looks plain peculiar in his wig and tight trousers. Charlotte Page is a fine-voiced Phyllis, and, as her prospective mother-in-law Iolanthe, Maria Jones, who demolished Pitti-Sing in 2000's The Mikado, has found a better suited role here and one that she delivers with impassioned flair.
The female chorus is deliciously vivacious, offset by the males who are as funny and in good voice yet much less disciplined, and there are some very good touches to the action, such as the addition of Strephon's remote control for the appearance of a swing. As a bubbly satire on politics and the Establishment, Iolanthe ultimately sweeps any criticism before it. Like The Mikado, it is as relevant and resonant - and funny - as ever.
The Yeoman Of The Guard Savoy Theatre and tour 2002
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and producer Raymond Gubbay got off to a flying start with their new series of Gilbert and Sullivan but it has really been just a question of time before they hit a rut. And they've hit one. This would be understandable if it were a simple case of diminishing artistic returns (the company started with the hits and is working its way downwards), but here it is unforgiveably cack-handed direction and lacklustre performances that render this show a dud.
The Yeoman Of The Guard is not a bad piece at all. Admittedly it lacks the gothic camp of its immediate predecessor Ruddigore, and only hints at the sparkle of The Gondeliers that followed, but it does tell a cracking story. First performed in 1888, this is the one set in in the Tower of London during Tudor times where the dashing Colonel Fairfax awaits execution. Sentenced to die in an hour on trumped-up charges of sorcery, as a final wish he marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer given him by the jester Jack Point. Phoebe, daughter of one of the Yeomen, loves Fairfax from afar and, aided by her sympathetic father, she helps him to escape, causing all manner of delicious complications. And to spice up the tension, it's set in real time.
Of all the collaborations by Gilbert and Sullivan, this is considered the one that most approaches grand opera. Gilbert had come up with a plot that for once did not pillory the Establishment and Sullivan accordingly felt inspired to shift to a more serious level of composition he had long craved that would nudge their partnership onwards. Yet when Gilbert shoehorned his usual comic conundrums from pitching class and marriage against each other into the enclosed space and society of the Tower of London, things become strangely personal, human and intimate.
The perceived wisdom is that this is the only G&S opera with a tragic ending and that Jack Point is their only tragic character, but it also happens to be one of the most comic. So there is a strong argument that, whatever the original intent, this grand opera element lies not in the music but in its spirit and only the most gifted of directors should take it beyond light opera. Give it the good old G&S oomph you'd give their other works and the climactic emotions will take care of themselves.
Here, however, Ian Talbot directs a cast that flounders its way uncomfortably through both acts, weighed down by an badly lit, ugly, inflexible, claustrophobic set. Most of the leads betray a distressing lack of ability in the singing department and few seem to have any clue that they are acting comedy. The production comes across as The Merry Wives Of Windsor construed as Gotterdammerung - indeed the sung diction is so bad the lyrics may as well be in German. Musical director John Owen Edwards conducts a tight but somehat subdued orchestra but really should have paid more attention to the lamentable vocal performances onstage.
The pivotal Jack Point as played by Paul Barnhill exudes neither wit nor pathos in sufficient amounts to grab the spotlight at any point in the proceedings (and whose post-modern idea was it to have a jester who does not wear jester costume?). More worryingly, as Elsie Maynard, the love interest of both Jack and Fairfax, Janet Fairlie displays visible difficulty in sustaining a note and (there's no other way to say this) cannot act a farthing. It is unsurprising therefore that the highlight of the show, Jack and Janet's duet fizzles away with each refrain of "I have a song to sing, O!"
Royce Mills, that stalwart of previous productions, is unaccountably missing and sorely missed. Nevertheless, there are some good points to savour. Maria Jones is delightful as the inventive Phoebe - though perhaps not as smitten as one would expect and her deep tones are distracting - while Oliver White's Colonel Fairfax invigorates the performers around him each time he makes an entry. His infectious energy makes it appear as if he carries a window of comic veracity through which the plot makes sense and the humour comes shining through. And to the minor role of Kate, Sophie-Louise Dann adds welcome texture with her bell-like soprano, particularly in the way she underpins the quartet number in Act II of "Strange Adventure!".
The chorus too acquits itself well - the males and females complement each other excellently and are in fine voice but they otherwise given little to do in the movement department aside from the impressive tableaux vivants during the Overture.
All in all, it looks as if they just want to get this one out on tour as quickly as possible. For fans of the company only.
H.M.S. Pinafore Open Air Theatre Summer 2005
A delightful play in a delightful setting - there isn't too much more you could ask for on a pleasant summer night.
The Shakespeare-in-the-Park theatre does one musical each summer, and this year it's a sprightly reworking of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic - the one about the sailor who loves the captain's daughter, who's supposed to marry the Lord of the Admiralty.
In true Gilbert fashion, it all works out through the most unlikely means possible, but in true Gilbert fashion the plot is just a barely-tolerated frame on which to hang classic songs that you've known all your life even if you don't know you know them - the one about poor little Buttercup, the one about being never ever sick at sea, the one about the ruler of the Queen's na-vee, the one about how (In spite of all temptations/To belong to other nations) he is an Englishman, and the deservedly show-stopping 'Never Mind the Why and Wherefore.'
Herbert Appleman has written a new book that follows Gilbert's plot but perks it up with a lot of new jokes and a knowing self-mocking air. The slimy villain Dick Deadeye (played with strong touches of Popeye by Gary Wilmot) has become a mildly cynical observer, who points out before we get a chance to that these supposedly burly sailors move and sound a lot like chorus boys, and who cries 'Wait a minute!' every time the plot gets a little too silly.
(I'm pretty sure it is Appleman who inserted a costume party, though it may be designer Paul Farnsworth or director Ian Talbot who decided that everyone should come dressed as other Gilbert and Sullivan characters.)
Gary Wilmot is fun as Dick, Desmond Barrit is a very satisfyingly solid Sir Joseph, Giles Taylor almost steals the show as the chorus-leading Boatswain, Hal Fowler as the Captain and Lesley Nicol as Buttercup add to the fun, Scarlett Strallen sings beautifully as Josephine and Simon Thomas is no more wooden than all tenors are as Ralph.
If you're looking for the traditional Fun Night Out, here it is. If you're a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, this is just about the best Pinafore you're ever likely to see. And even if you're not a big G&S fan, I defy you to resist it.
If you know the show, scroll down a couple of paragraphs. If you don't, then it might help to know that this is the one about Frederic, the orphan pirate apprenticed to a band of seafaring cutthroats (actually big softies who revel in their notoriety). The genteel Frederic is hardly the world's most natural pirate and, on the day his apprenticeship concludes (his 21st birthday), he admits he longs for the company of pretty women rather than a life of dastardly derring-do.
By the strangest of coincidences, the voluptuous unwed daughters of the local major-general promptly turn up in bathing suits on his Cornish beach. What transpires is a witty poke at polite society that even in its original 1879 form has remarkable resonances for the present day.
From the moment he appears at his coming-of-age party, bizarrely set at a graveside, Stephen Carlile's Frederic is a masterful study of the classic Englishman torn between loyalty and doing the right thing, while Philippa Stanton is a bundle of bespectacled energy as plain-Jane Mabel, the unlikely object of his affections.
Vainly trying to keep them apart are Craig Purnell's laconic Pirate King and Alan McMahon's lugubrious Major-General Stanley, aided and abetted by Julie Jupp's spurned Ruth a feisty 'Pirate Maid of All Work' and the only woman Frederic has clapped eyes on until Mabel's timely appearance.
It's a strong ensemble, with all 12 members clearly enjoying every second and relishing the challenge of performing in the round, whether they're abseiling from the balcony, being human deckchairs or merely drenching the odd audience member with water.
As a deliciously popular satire set to catchy foot-tapping tunes, Pirates is a genuinely timeless show with universal appeal. Monks succeeds equally as both adaptor and director, since he updates without losing any of those key elements of hit songs, beach beauties, class conflict, organised crime, cop chases and executions (so it's your standard comic opera thenŠ)
The 'Baywatch meets Reservoir Dogs' concept of Monks' original 1996 production has been updated to The Sopranos, hence the seemingly limitless string of sight gags with guns and wise-guy cracks.
Stripping down the story and condensing the songs creates a fast-moving show and yet, it has to be admitted, this is at the price of some loss in plot (minor problem) and drama in the songs (slightly less minor). Certainly, 'I Am a Pirate King' is not the stirring opener it should be, while 'A Paradox' is frustratingly shapeless. Additionally, the new thespian-themed ending rather takes the wind out of the whole show's sails.
Nevertheless, numbers such as Mabel's hilariously virtuoso 'Poor Wandering One', her father's scattergun 'I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General' amended to be as topical as the 9 O'Clock News and the security guard chorus line 'When a Felon's Not Engaged' are alone enough to make Pirates worth the price of admission.
The Pirates of Penzance Wilton's
Music Hall Spring 2010
This Gilbert and Sullivan revival, transferred from the tiny but ambitious Union Theatre, is an absolutely irresistible delight, as a show that is great fun in itself is carried to new heights of both loveliness and silliness by an inventive director and enthusiastic cast.
This is the one about
the stalwart hero who is forced to serve as a pirate because he was
born on February 29 (Don't ask). Like all G&S shows it is
sprinkled liberally with tunes alternately comic (The Major General)
and sweet (Poor Wand'ring One), all in the service of one of Gilbert's
patented ridiculous plots.
And to the inherent
absurdity director Sasha Regan has added the brainstorm of casting it
entirely with men. Now,
immediately forget what you're thinking about flamboyant drag shows or
galumphing boys' school chorus lines. Regan has chosen carefully and
directed her cast to play with no more camp sending-up than the
operetta can carry, and just as much as it deserves.
Gilbert's chorus of
tittering girls are comic even when played and sung by women, so
putting men in the corsets and petticoats somehow fits right in,
especially when they sing so beautifully as sopranos - and the fact
that many of the same performers will reappear to sing in deeper voices
as pirates or policemen just adds to the fun.
Not only do the 'girls'
sing and move so well, they've been guided by their director to
individual characterisations, so that each of the sisters (and each of
the pirates and policemen) has a recognisable personality and
everywhere you look there's some totally-in-the-Gilbert-spirit comedy
Meanwhile, as is
wholely appropriate, Russell Whitehead plays the manly hero absolutely
straight (so to speak), singing and acting like the admirable and
faintly ridiculous boy scout he is.
And Alan Richardson not
only invests the romantic heroine with un-campy grace and loveliness,
but he also shines as singer of the most melodic songs, complete with
all the trills and flourishes Sullivan put in to show off his soprano
Fred Broom is fun as
the patter-singing Major General, Samuel J. Holmes is droll as the
Katisha-like Ruth, Ricky Rojas an admirable antagonist as the Pirate
King, and each member of the ensemble enjoyable in the various roles
In all, then, as happy
a couple of hours as you are likely to find on any London stage. And
I'd like to add another point.
are ably accompanied by Chris Mundy at a single piano and, unlike too
many singers of their generation, they can all project their voices
over that minimal competition. Not the
least of the evening's pleasures is hearing so many unamplified voices
enunciating so clearly and singing so well.
For the uninitiated,
the plot of Iolanthe is typical Gilbert nonsense, something about the
half-mortal son of a fairy loving the Lord Chancellor's ward, who is
also being wooed by the entire House of Lords.
Like most G&S
operettas, it features songs you know even if you don't know you know
them, like the one about faint hearts and fair ladies, the one about
lying awake with a dismal headache, the one about the House of Peers
doing nothing in particular, and the one about how all babies are
Liberals or Conservatives.
The spirit and effect
of this company's gender-bending is much like that of the all-male
Trocadero ballet - just as the male ballerinas of the Trocs have to be
expert dancers to make their dancing funny, so the singing here,
whether soprano or baritone (and sometimes both), is faultless and
lovely, the comedy laid on top of a solid musical base.
And the comedy is
certainly here, from the moment a chorus of men in tights and corsets
flutter on as fairies in a manner for which the label 'camp' seems
woefully inadequate, through their reappearance, singing an octave
lower, as only marginally more butch Peers, to the decision - for no
particular reason other than that it's funny - to make the
philosophical guard a kilted Scotsman.
The camp comedy is not
merely a matter of flouncing about. Director Regan and choreographer
Mark Smith create a tightly disciplined and highly polished mode in
which every visual joke is expertly judged and executed, and so every
bit of invention scores, down to every subtle arched eyebrow and the
comic identity of each individual peer and fairy.
Amidst the general
silliness, the young lovers are played appropriately (pardon the
expression) straight, nicely anchoring the evening in, if not reality,
at least the world of romantic operetta, so that it doesn't totally
float away in whimsy.
The important point is
that Iolanthe can take this treatment, and even thrives on it.
Gilbert's libretto is very much aware of its own silliness ('The night
has been long, ditto ditto my song, and thank goodness they're both of
them over'), and Sasha Regan's added filigree is very much in the
It is certainly far
more alive and far more a tribute to G&S than the moribund
museum pieces of the D'Oyly Carte's declining years.
Do I have any
negatives? Merely nit-picking. The script doesn't give director or
choreographer as much opportunity to be inventive in the second act,
and comic energy flags a bit. And surely the Nightmare Song, one of
Gilbert's greatest patter numbers, desperately wants to be sung faster.
Louis Maskell and Alan
Richardson are charming as the lovers, Shaun McCourt droll as the
Chancellor, and Reuben Kaye, Adam Lewis Ford, Matthew James Willis and
Luke Fredericks standing out as, respectively, two leading fairies and
two leading lords.
Patience may not be as well-known or hit-filled as Regan's previous successes with Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance (by which I mean I didn't know it), but it is just as inventively done and just as much fun.
Gilbert began with the idea of satirising the aesthetic movement (think Oscar Wilde), but the satire is so gentle and so balanced with affection as to wind up perilously close to celebration, if not of the movement, then at least of the innocence and good intentions of its adherents. (So blunted is the satire that the Katisha figure, the lustful older woman, is actually treated with sympathy and given one of the sweetest songs with which to mourn the passing of time.)
The typically silly plot has two self-styled poets wooing the same country lass, Patience, while bathing in the adoration of what Gilbert would have called groupies if he knew the word. Meanwhile, Patience has decided that true love must involve sacrifice, so she can't pick the wooer she prefers because that would be too easy. Factor in a troop of dragoons (because we need something to do with the male chorus) who are in love with the maidens adoring the poets, stir very gently, and you have Patience.
To which Sasha Regan adds casting men in all the roles. Regan is so adept at casting and directing her male actresses that we instantly accept the device and relate to the chorus of love-sick maidens as somewhat gawky short-haired girls. Their soprano voices are rarely harsh or artificial, and one of the nicer jokes of the production has the maidens dance offstage to provide the deep-voiced backing for the dragoons who come on.
Another particular delight that is a Regan trademark is the individualising of every chorus member, so that however smoothly they sing and move together, each has his/her own personality. Drew McOnie's choreography builds on this, allowing each individual a slight personality-based variation on the group movements.
Dominic Brewer and Stiofan O'Doherty are each ridiculous and adorable in equal measure as the two poseurs, while Edward Charles Bernstone anchors the play in some hint of reality with a natural and uncampy portrayal of sweet and simple Patience.
Regan knows three absolutely essential things. First, that to play around with a classic you must love and respect it. Her productions are first and foremost excellent Gilbert & Sullivan, and any additional fun she can add through the all-male casting isn't allowed to overshadow the original.
Her second insight is that in order to sing or dance comically you must first be able to sing or dance well, and she casts her shows with first-class young performers. Hers is not the easy school-show gag of guys galumphing about in drag – her performers can play convincingly as females and sing as beautifully as sopranos as they do as baritones.
And finally, Regan is wise enough to know that a certain degree of camp is inevitable in her cross-gender casting, and that to try to suppress it would be as foolish as overdoing it. What makes Pinafore and her other G&S productions such delights is that she gilds the lily just enough.
Of course it helps that G&S were already playing around with operetta conventions, making comic use of the silly romances and obligatory male and female choruses of the genre.
When the male chorus enters declaring its maleness ('We sail the ocean blue') and the female chorus their femaleness ('We are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts'), the fact that here they're the same guys just singing an octave higher seems somehow right.
Pinafore is the one about the sailor who loves his captain's daughter, who is too far above his station until it is discovered that he is actually . . . .
More to the point, it's the one with 'I'm called Little Buttercup' and 'Never mind the why and wherefore' and the song about never never being sick at sea and the one about how 'in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations' he is an Englishman and the one about how to become the ruler of the Queen's nay-vee. In short, a typical Gilbert and Sullivan mix of clever comic songs and the occasional lovely ballad.
Director Regan and choreographer Lizzi Gee have inventive fun with both the source material and the opportunities afforded by the casting. The male chorus numbers are all built on callisthenics, amusingly emphasising the masculinity the same singer-dancers will soon counter with small symbolic changes in costume and just a bit of mincing. There's a cleverly choreographed number in the near-dark, and Regan and Gee repeatedly work inventive and entertaining bits of staging around a single piece of rope.
Tom Senior is appropriately stalwart and manly as romantic lead Ralph and Bex Roberts sweetly winsome as his Josephine while Benjamin Vivian-Jones makes an admirable Captain.
And I've left this for last because it's of interest only to those who have seen and loved Sasha Regan's previous forays into G&S: what keeps this one from being quite as delightful? Occasionally, and only occasionally, dialogue scenes or musical numbers lack the snap, the heightened reality and artificial stylisation the form wants, as if the director, in fear of camping it up too far, didn't go quite far enough.
You might not notice it – it's just the passing moment of dropped energy – and it would be a big mistake to miss this evening of fun just because the director has done it slightly more successfully before.
Head Theatre Summer 2014
Patience is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's least-often revived operettas, and has no big hit songs like Poor Little Buttercup or Punishment Fit The Crime. But it has plenty of wit and charm of its own, all of which are brought out in this sparkling Charles Court Opera production.
Two self-styled poets and aesthetes (think Oscar Wilde) vie for the affections of simple country lass Patience while fighting off the attentions of the female chorus, who treat them like pop stars while themselves rejecting the male chorus of dragoons.
Innocent and somewhat dim Patience gets it in her head that true love must be unselfish, so she can't choose the man she wants and must go with the one who will make her most unhappy. (On such logic were all Gilbert's plots built.)
Everything gets sorted out in the end, through the least likely but most efficient means, and along the way we've had some gentle satire of aestheticism, romanticism, hero-worship and anything else that caught Gilbert's bemused eye and could be set to Sullivan's alternately lovely and perky tunes.
Director John Savournin wittily updates things, moving the setting from a bucolic village to a modern London pub, with the poetry fans discovered propping up the bar as almost-stylish Ladies Who Drink – their opening number, Melancholic Maidens We, has the flavour of a Cole Porter urban blues – and Patience as the improbably unworldly barmaid.
It shouldn't be allowed to go without saying that all the operatically-trained singers have fine voices and (unlike too many of their musical theatre contemporaries) can make themselves heard over the single piano played with unobtrusive skill by musical director David Eaton. Even more impressively, they all have excellent singing diction and can all act.
Reducing both male and female choruses to three each works nicely in the small space, allows for attractive individual characterisations and also makes Gilbert's witty lyrics easier to hear and appreciate.
Joanna Marie Skillett captures the adorable simplicity and simple-mindedness of dear dim Patience, while David Phipps-Davis and Henry Manning make her rival suitors ridiculous and attractive in just the right proportions.
Amy J. Payne makes the woman-of-a-certain-age nicely sympathetic, more cougar than Katisha, and Helen Evora registers as the most-nearly-rational of the poetic groupies.
The Mikado Charing
Cross Theatre Winter 2014-2015
A thoroughly delightful bauble, this sprightly production will entertain those looking for some light festive season fun blissfully free of any hint of soppy Christmas sentiment.
Director Thom Southerland and his talented cast treat Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta with all the respect it deserves – and not a smidge more.
That means, first of all, that the glories of Sullivan's music are given free reign, from popsy patter songs to lovely ballads. The cast of largely operatically trained singers not only hit all the right notes, but in the right order, and (far too unusual for these days) have no difficulty projecting their voices over two unobtrusive pianos, so that one of the pleasures of this show is listening to the unamplified human voice. What's more – and equally as rare these days – they all sing with perfect diction, so the wit and poetry of Gilbert's lyrics are never muddied.
But that is, quite properly, the limit of the production's reverence. Director Southerland knows that The Mikado is strong enough to survive and even flourish under a certain amount of messing about, and mess about he does, with great comic imagination.
The setting is shifted from Gilbert's imaginary Japan to the Japanoiserie department of an Art Deco department store, with Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush as floorwalkers, the three little maids as flappers, and the whole thing having an irreverent Jazz Age flair.
Meanwhile, more modern topical references abound, Ko-Ko's Little List and the Mikado's Object All Sublime rewritten to include audience-delighting damnations of tweeters, texters, the TOWIE cast, UKIP, Chelsea tractors, and whatever politician has made a fool of himself in this morning's newspaper.
Choreographer Joey McKneely fills the small stage with movement that never looks cramped, while throwing in the occasional incongruous but perfectly-in-the-spirit-of-the-thing surprise like a touch of Charleston for the three little maids or a hint of Texas hoedown in Here's A How-De-Do.
Hugh Osborne carries much of the show as a Ko-Ko who, far from being a fool, seems like the sanest man around trying to keep up with the silliness around him. Steve Watts is satisfyingly pompous as Pooh-Bah and Jacob Chapman inventively fey as Pish-Tush.
Leigh Coggins plays Yum-Yum as a beautifully singing Kewpie doll with a bit of Betty Boop to her, while Matthew Crowe's Nanki-Poo has the genial air of a student enjoying an irresponsible gap year, and Rebecca Caine, looking far too young and attractive for the role, makes Katisha more cougar than gorgon, finding fresh laughs and unexpected sympathy in the character.
Review - Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas in London 2000-2015
|Buy these titles at AMAZON.COM or AMAZON.CO.UK|