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The Theatreguide.London Review

Princess Ida
Finborough Theatre   Spring 2015

Princess Ida – or something resembling it, director Phil Willmott having been free in his revision of the overcomplicated original book – is B-level Gilbert and Sullivan. But, as I have frequently noted, B-level work by A-level artists is frequently more attractive than the best that B-level artists can manage. 

In Willmott's version Princess Ida is charming and witty and tuneful, and if none of its songs are quite on the level of those in The Mikado or Iolanthe, that is hardly damning criticism. Don't demand too much, and the evening offers a goodly share of pleasures. 

Willmott has cut several characters, a few songs and some minor plot complications from Gilbert's libretto, also freeing it from the original's misguided straining for iambic pentameter. What is left is a typically self-parodying Gilbert plot. 

As a gaggle of princes assemble to woo the titular princess, her guardian, who has his own romantic designs on her, sends her off to a convent-like women's academy. The more ingenious princes sneak in disguised as girls and are discovered, generating some confusion among the feminists. 

A war between the sexes is forestalled by the reminder that Ida was promised to one of the princes when both were infants, which is sufficient excuse for a happy ending. 

Silly, of course, but no more so than any other Gilbert libretto, and the occasion for some passing satire (which Willmott points up) at Darwinism, feminism, militarism and Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. 

The melodies may not be top-level Sullivan, and a little too often conjure up echoes of songs from his other scores, but they're pleasant enough, and lyrics like “On every side/A suitor comes for Princess Ida” offer no cause for complaint. 

Phil Willmott's reshaping of the text makes it an excellent fit for the Finborough's tiny stage, and he and choreographer Thomas Michael Voss move people about smoothly and without a hint of clutter. 

He has assembled that rarest of things, a cast of singers able to make themselves heard over a pair of pianos, and led them to comic performances of just the right pitch, so that each chorus member is individualised without scene-stealing. 

Bridget Costello, a New Zealander making one of her first London appearances, shows real star quality as Ida, singing beautifully while projecting warmth, intelligence and an attractive personality. 

All that's asked of the romantic lead is that he be handsome and wooden, but Zac Wancke gives him a boyish charm that nicely complements his acting and singing, while G&S veteran Simon Butteriss sails through the comic villain role with masterful ease.

I suppose I should warn that purists may find things that upset them in this production - not just the simplification of plot and cast structure, but some rearranging of song order and assignment, some fiddling with Gilbert's lyrics, and some new jokes of Willmott's own, including a bit of mix-and-match in the final pairing-off of boys and girls. Pooh to the purists.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Princess Ida - Finborough Theatre 2015

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