Brighton Fringe 2021
“Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte are well-known names in theatre, synonymous with the birth of musicals – yet Helen Carte’s important contributions to their legacy and her wider impact on British Theatre have been pushed to the wings. In this audio-show, a fictional Gilbert and Sullivan resolve to create a long overdue operetta, based upon Helen’s remarkable life. Featuring music from across the G&S canon, including The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore, the show is liberally sprinkled with G&S references, which Savoyards will no doubt recognise.The show highlights Helen’s diplomacy, her sharp business acumen, and her vision in shaping modern theatre. Please note that this is an audio only show.”
Busy times in the theatre again – rehearsals, Scrabble, and 3 gentlemen known as the creators of the Savoy Opera legacy: W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, and Richard d’Oyly Carte. In these times, when “Victorians were not ready to acknowledge a successful business woman” according to a gentleman in the play, the outstanding business accomplishments and entrepreneurial ideas of Helen Carte are relatively unknown…until now, that is!
The Coily Dart Theatre (a play on the name of the renowned d’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the leading production company of popular Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas) presents their new original comedy musical parody of Gilbert and Sullivan, their third production, and this time the focus is on…Helen, written by Susan Ellerby, co-directed by Ellerby and Norman Hockley, musical director Vicki Hing.
In reality, Helen did so much in the background to promote the Gilbert and Sullivan company: traveling to America, securing copyright for the operettas, innovating theatre procedures such as seat numbering and theatre lighting (to name a few), she even created revival seasons to save the company.
In this fictional musical comedy play within a play, a group of characters want to create a new operetta about Helen Carte herself. Helen is modest and says that the company does not need any more operettas. However, soon we are on the way to hearing her life story (with the gaps filled in from the imagination) through several characters of the time and several well chosen Gilbert and Sullivan songs.
Helen says that not much is written about her life and she has forgotten a lot of it, but a venerable gentleman, W.S. Gilbert (no less!) suggests that he can create human interest in a story – with mix ups in parentage, kidnappings or other typical plot twists in G&S storytelling, for excitement!
In between the conversations interesting modern dialogue comes through with a bow to the Internet providing a lot of information about Helen and her achievements.
Helen’s story begins in 1867 when she left school, and continues through the successes and losses of the company, her accomplishments and one for two lively interactions among the characters.
Alternating with the dialogue are songs from across the G&S canon including The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, beautifully sung by the acting/singing cast of eight (who never met in person to rehearse or record the show, due to the pandemic), with piano accompaniment by musical director and audio-editor, Hing. A complex layering of solos, duos, and ensemble singing creates a rich tapestry of sound throughout.
This time period is evoked by the script, dialogue and eight actors, each one having a different tone and energy to their speaking voice so we can differentiate the ten characters. The pacing unfolds well, especially in the second half, and the first half may benefit from slight streamlining in the seventy five minute show.
An audio show like this one allows the listener to focus on the story, characters and of course the music in a way that we may not do so if we had the additional visual element – it also offers the listener an unexpected way to become part of the story, with our imagination. Lead ins to songs become musical interludes simply to enjoy the moment.
The position of women in society during G&S times is in stark contrast to that of women today, and this back and forth is pushed forward by Helen in her own way – yet without recognition – as she pursued a university education, took on the company business, made important decisions, and was creative and forward thinking.
Helen, very effectively played by Catherine Tuckey is a sensible yet upbeat character with ready ideas and always encouraging those around her. Tuckey is compelling with an interesting variety of interactions, as she deals with all types of characters with Helen’s depth of knowledge and grace coming through her voice acting.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Improbably New Musical…and Helen is witty with humour, parody and an interesting slice of G&S history. There is great quality in the singing – in all this is an uplifting show!