Julian Eaves reviews Sasha Regan’s All Male production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe at Richmond Theatre as part of a UK Tour.
Richmond Theatre (UK Tour)
17th May 2018
Gilbert and Sullivan, like the poor, will always be with us. At least, they will if the army of G&S rejuvenators have their way: the length and breadth of these isles – and far, far beyond – talents great and greater yet have been engaged for some years in brushing away with cobwebs of the Savoy Opera Co., to re-launch the light operas of the mid-Victorian two-some in ways that will suit more modern tastes.
Currently, one of the senior torch-bearers of this veritable renaissance of opera buffa ‘all’inglese’ is the theatre owner, producer and director, Sasha Regan, and her stalwart team from her inextinguishable Union Theatre in SE1. Out of that crucible of re-invention have sprung a series of brilliantly re-thought productions of ‘The Pirates of Penzance‘, ‘The Mikado’, ‘HMS Pinafore‘, and now – busily touring theatres very much larger and more venerable, the sweetest gem yet, ‘Iolanthe’. When it called in at the pretty near-contemporary venue on Richmond Green, I was lucky enough to pop in for a look.
Now. There has been some ‘talk’ about Regan’s preferred approach: she is bucking the trend of employing more and more and more women in performing roles in the theatre, and has re-imagined these works entirely for men. How shocking! As an exercise in High Camp, to have blokes singing their tenor-baritone-bass parts, and then also skipping up into the falsetto ranges of alto-mezzo-and… almost impossible to imagine… coloratura soprano, is something to behold, that is certain. I must say I first braved this testosterone-rich ensemble with some trepidation when I saw ‘Pinafore’ at the Hackney Empire not so long ago. But I was quickly won over by…. well, by what? I’m still trying to work out what it was, what it is, about this unusual method of staging these operettas that has such appeal, such charm, and such… beauty?
It is hard to pin down. No matter. While wrestling with such aesthetic imponderables, I am happy – I was happy this Thursday – to sit ensconced in a handsome Matcham theatre, and to be transported by a production of such ineffable grace, such legereté, such innocent and lovely simplicity, all presented to us with meticulous attention to the detail of the text – and score – that I could hardly imagine seeing it done in any other way, so convincing, so resoundingly ‘right’ did it all seem. What magic!
Central to all of this is the huge cast. This is not slim-line comic opera: a sturdy company of 16 throng the almost empty stage, and, once Mark Smith’s smashingly gorgeous choreography (laden with gestures from Bournonville to Massine to Petit to Hermes Pan and Gene Kelly) gets going, it is easy to see why: the whole space is needed for these boys to move. And move they do, into shapes and arrangements of such dazzlingly precise and effortless loveliness that it is wholly impossible not to be instantly won over by them. All this transpires in the cleverly presented ‘overture’, and from that point on we are their willing captives, happy for them to do whatever they wish to us.
And yet, perhaps the secret lies in another department, too: from the initial utterance of Richard Baker’s extraordinarily under-stated, chamber-sized opening phrase to the Act 1 prelude, a line that might come out of one of the more picturesque nineteenth century composers of decent, bourgeois keyboard amusements for the talented amateur at home, we are lured – nay, snared! – into a world of breathlessly poised introspection; we are presented with the delicate, precious ‘truth’ that underlies the hi-jinks that are about to erupt around us. So, when the lads burst into the darkened hall, waving little hand-held torches, and capering about like mischievous children, dressed up as early 20th century chums in Stewart Charlesworth’s spiffingly appropriate design – always lit to the most ravishing perfection by Tim Deiling’s vibrant lighting, in short, as the ‘faeries’, when this happens, we are already totally on side with them and ready and willing to accept and absorb any kind of madcap mayhem they might hurl at us.
Leading the attack of the supernaturals is Richard Russell Edwards as a Dr Hilda Brackett-like Fairy Queen – with a magnificent voice. In fact, the whole company is vocally very strong. Christopher Finn is a dignified and stoic Iolanthe, and might be just as at home in opera seria, so much does he inhabit the tragic core of the role. Joe Henry, Dominic Harbison and Lee Greenaway play Phyllis, Celia and Leila with equal finesse, with such light, clear voices, meshing with those characteristic, thrilling harmonies that only higher voices in concert can achieve, you really do forget completely which gender they are: they are purely wonderful and marvelous, and that is all one needs to know. Bridging the gap between two worlds, as the semi-immortal Strephon, is the interestingly cast Richard Carson, whose bona fide West End creds sound fascinatingly different in this crowd, audibly marking him out as something of another water altogether. That does not stop him from making his and Phyllis’ 2nd Act duet an event of heart-melting delight.
Against these apollonian revellers are pitted the leadenly earthy peers of the realm, lead by Alastair Hill’s remarkably youthful, but dazzlingly ‘on point’ Lord Chancellor (and he makes his 2nd Act nightmare narration – justly – one of the stand out highlights of this sublime production). Adam Pettit makes a clarion-toned Lord Tolloller, and Michael Burgen – who seems to know no limits at all to what he can take on – is a perfect Lord Mountararat: their scenes together are just bliss. Stonking sex appeal – and fine, almost Chippendale-esque – comic timing emanate from the wow-factor bass of Duncan Sandilands. And the rest of the ensemble comprises the restlessly brilliant and omnipresent forces of Benjamin Mundy, Reece Budin, Jack Hinton, Daniel Miles, Sam Kipling and James Gulliford.
At heart, however, this is a production that understands just what a masterpiece the score is, and nothing, absolutely nothing is done to do anything but show it off to its very best effect. The first half is terrifically exciting, but it is after the interval that the real fireworks are let loose! And the cast’s youthful voices, especially in such a well chosen theatre, with such divine acoustics, ring out clear as a bell, with the simple piano accompaniment allowing every note to be heard. And – even more important – every crisp, fresh syllable of Gilbert’s insanely clever and well made libretto is able to shine and sparkle in the air, like so many crystal lustres in a Westminster ballroom. The total effect is spell-binding and nothing short of a triumph. Go and fall in love with this heavenly production of one of the finest works on the British musical stage.