FringeReview UK 2018
Sasha Regan’s all-male Gilbert and Sullivan ensemble return with Iolanthe. Stewart Charlesworth’s original set with Tim Deiling’s lighting. There’s a period feel with Kingsley Hall’s costumes with choreography by Mark Smith. Paul Callen is resident director.
Sasha Regan’s all-male Gilbert and Sullivan ensemble return with what must be the definitive, indeed the only way this daft 1882 mid-period G&S classic on fairyland invading the House of Commons and Lords can possibly be realized: in a dream. Perhaps. Yet again men burst in on the society of women. Only this time it’s a bit different.
Iolanthe was the first of these productions, revived after six years, with everything shrunk to a boy in a book in a Victorian cupboard. Odds are you might not have seen this less-performed gem and knowing its premise it’s clear that all Regan’s G&S stems from this vision; it wholly reinvents gender and other stereotypes from an original that always turned things topsy-turvy in the first place. Subtitled
It’s Victorian England. Stewart Charlesworth’s original set stunningly lit (more on that later) enjoys an exuberant cross-period feel with Kingsley Hall’s costumes. There’s an ARP helmet, cod-Sherlock, Victorian gaffer and top hats, dressing gowns and colourful loungewear edged to midsummer madness. This production builds on the previous one but it’s essentially the same. Paul Callen’s resident director on this tour with Lee Greenaway his associate. It’s fresh and mesmerising.
It’s Richard Baker at the piano vigorously conducting who stamps G&S panache on the ensemble. His pianism’s exquisite: at just one point he allows himself a bluesy rendition of the National Anthem.
Sullivan’s a little influenced by Wagner by this time, too. Iolanthe’s one of those more symphonic scores with leitmotifs and fewer stand-alone numbers than the three or four best-known, but it’s also one of Sullivan’s most beautiful, musical scores too. The only drawback here is the piano reduction but there’s Baker to point up that loss: so it simply vanishes for the most part.
The opening chorus alone is a shaft of choreography by Mark Smith, and from moonlight fairyland to a Commons high noon Tim Deiling’s lighting renders a hallucinatory glare to the spectacle. With a pinch of dry ice the theatre’s hazed in milky turquoise, violet, blues and at those bright rational moments saffron and turmeric yellow with deep read shadows. The lighting’s more than simply the atmosphere. What critic Andrew Kay terms the ‘church-hall genius’ of the original conception where the orchestra’s reduced to a piano and the set’s wardrobe and a few fittings like benches, suggest tour, is the most luxurious looking production: it sings economy and extravagance in one.
We’re treated to the first number ‘Tripping hither, tripping thither’ as the chorus flock on in costumes close to tutus. Fairy Iolanthe (Christopher Finn) has been banished from fairyland by the Queen (Richard Russell Edwards) because she married a mortal; it’s forbidden by fairy law and she banishes herself to a bog with frogs, which rather upsets the Queen and other friends like Celia (Dominic Harbison) and Leila (Lee Greenaway as well as being associate director) who successfully plead for Iolanthe’s return. Fin has a fine countertenor range but a strong tenor one too. Russell Edwards like many here a regular, enjoys one might say a more deep, regal vocal quality, and it’s a delight.
Iolanthe’s son, Strephon (Richard Carson, a strapping and ardent tenor with attractive projection), laments he’s ‘half a fairy… down to the waist’ and thus mortal below, is an Arcadian shepherd. He’s comfortable enough in his mother’s realm too and doesn’t take it amiss she still looks seventeen when he’s nearing twenty-five. Immortal fairies all appear young too.
Still, nearly twenty-five; trouble. He wants to marry Joe Henry’s Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery; and she him. Problem. All the members of the House of Peers also want to marry Phyllis. Another well-known choral number comes up: ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray’. Particularly her own protector Lord Chancellor, Alastair Hill, as well as the towering Lord Tolloller (Adam Petit) and the diminutive Lord Moutararat (Michal Burgen) both particularly delicious on male friendship and quelling sexual rivalry.
The main impediment is the Lord Chancellor’s equivocating urbane cheerfully avuncular….. no to Strephon. He wants Phyllis for himself. He wrestles with himself (‘The law is the true embodiment ‘) as petitioner and judge in his own case. One of the best-known numbers comes soon after. ‘When I went to the Bar’ with its refrain ‘says I to myself says I’. When Phyllis sees Strephon hugging a young woman (not knowing it’s his mother), she flounces off and sets a climactic collision between peers and fairies. Not last for somehow ensuring Strephon’s made MP. And he wants reform of the Lords. One of the outgoing finale lines picks up on ‘give her one’ and one really wonders what gilbert means by that.
One Private Willis appears – Duncan Sandilands with a superb burnished bass-baritonal register – and provides the aptest satire on party politics, something you hear detached from Iolanthe. ‘When all night long a chap remains’ contains the immortal rhyming ‘every girl and boy born alive/is either a little liberal/or else a little conservative’ with the last word rhyming with ‘alive’ has Willis dismissing his betters. But one better sighs for him, the Fairy Queen herself. Another gem from the Chancellor whose words are often quoted witout the music which scintillates in any case. It’s bad dreams. ‘Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest’ is a patter-song of nightmares, fresh as when it was written in 1882.
How this unravels you’ll have to see. There’s agile work from the pompously vulnerable figure Hill make of the Chancellor, as well as the heroic young Carson, Russell Edwards manages dignity with absurdity, and Henry’s Phyllis again in high registers marshals a pathos proving not everything’s guyed as it were. Finn’s another central role naturally as Iolanthe. Again Finn’s vocal range edges tenderness amidst absurdity. Harbison and Greenaway acts as shadows to the two peers, wondering if they might get their man: again each of these characters is subtly different, Greenaway’s Leila quite commanding and Harbison’s Celia demure.
Iolanthe scathes lightly over many absurdities of British government, law and society. The stand-off between fairies and the peers is a version of one of Gilbert’s favourite themes: a tranquil civilisation of women is disrupted by a male-dominated world through the discovery of, well mortal love. But there’s a solution. You’ll have to see this if you care for music theatre at all. it’s unmissable.