Iolanthe takes the biscuit: it’s a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera (what on earth did I expect?). But there’s one aspect of this particular production that proves more touching than anything in the narrative, once it dawned on me that it wasn’t yet more satire. The production has in Mark Smith a deaf choreographer, so there are elements of British Sign Language embedded into the choreography, particularly in the exaggerated movements of the fairies, who possess supernatural abilities, including eternal life. It does mean there’s more ‘armography’ than would be expected at the theatre, but the wonderful thing is that it works, and works well.
There is no attempt to re-examine the story or re-interpret it for an early twenty-first-century audience. There is no need, in any event – a comical reference to a “liberal Conservative” brings to mind the Coalition Government of 2010 to 2015. Then (the show premiered in 1882) as now, reform of the House of Lords and its membership continues to be a topic of discussion for those who take an interest in parliamentary affairs. Here, the fairies, who only really interfere with human affairs when there is good cause, as far as the fairies are concerned, to do so, impose a “competitive examination”, such that members of the House of Lords are effectively re-applying for their positions.
All the parliamentary doo-dah only happens as a result of one of the fairies, Iolanthe (Christopher Finn: yes, it really is an all-male cast) marrying a human, the unpardonable sin in fairyland. The Fairy Queen (Richard Russell Edwards), some twenty-five years after the event, is persuaded to ‘forgive’ Iolanthe, for reasons made clear in the narrative. Iolanthe’s relationship has produced a son, Strephon (Richard Carson), who himself is in love with Phyllis (Joe Henry), a ‘ward’ of the Lord Chancellor (Alastair Hill), who also wishes to marry Phyllis. Being her guardian, the Chancellor is in a position to deny Strephon’s wishes.
From here, much silliness, piffling and piddling abounds. Lord Mountararat (Michael Burgen) goes as far as admitting, in reference to ‘brains’, “I often wish I had some myself”. The musical accompaniment, meanwhile, consists solely of Richard Baker on piano, which may have worked in this production’s previous incarnations in smaller spaces such as Wilton’s Music Hall, and the even smaller Union Theatre in Southwark. At Richmond Theatre, designed by the great Frank Matcham and seating over eight hundred, the show could have benefited from a small band.
The stand-out performances come from Henry’s Phyllis and Hill’s Chancellor. The former portrays both the character’s vulnerability and relatively privileged position quite excellently. The latter handles the rapidity of Gilbert’s lyrics in wordy ‘patter songs’ (there is more than one) with the precision and exquisite comic timing the role demands. Meanwhile, the falsetto voices of the fairies are quite excellent and well-projected, and Duncan Sandilands’ Private Willis provides a glorious baritone, given its moment to shine at the start of the second half.
These are dialogue and lyrics put together at a time long before it became both permissible and fashionable to express strong feelings in the form of ‘eff, cee and effing cee’. The vocabulary is rich, and the performance richer for it. This is a wonderful piece of escapism that still pulls in hearty laughs.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A dynamic all-male cast have been announced for the return of Sasha Regan’s most critically acclaimed production, Iolanthe – one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous operettas.
Torches flash in the darkness as a party of naughty schoolboys adventure into the magical surroundings of an old theatre. Amid all the backstage paraphernalia they discover a Narnia-like wardrobe and a dusty copy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. What follows is pure magic!
Director Sasha Regan
Choreographer Mark Smith
Original Design Stewart Charlesworth
Tour Set Design Kingsley Hall
Producers Regan De Wynter Williams
Casting Director Adam Braham
Fairy Queen Richard Russell Edwards
Iolanthe Christopher Finn
Strephon Richard Carson
Celia Dominic Harbison
Leila Jamie Jukes
Phylliss Joe Henry
Private Willis Duncan Sandilands
Lord T Adam Pettit
Lord M Michael Burgen
Chancellor Alastair Hill
Ensemble/Fairy Ben Mundy
Ensemble/Fairy Reece Budin
Ensemble/Fairy Jack Hinton
Ensemble/Lord Daniel Miles
Ensemble/Lord Sam Kipling
Ensemble/Lord James Gulliford
15th – 19th May Richmond Theatre
Little Green, Richmond TW9 1QJ