Thursday, 17 May 2018

REVIEW: Iolanthe at the Richmond Theatre

Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas are somewhat less frequently produced now then when I first encountered the whole repertoire in the 1960's and 1970's but occasionally a fresh production breathes new life into these most British of operas. Joseph Papp's Pirates of Penzance and Jonathan Miller's The Mikado successfully created exciting new versions of these best known titles. Sasha Regan's production which started at Union theatre and is currently on tour in U.K. takes the tale of the House of Lords and a group of fairies and seeks to reinvent the story. At a time of gender blind casting, she takes this to new extremes with an all male cast and sets this up with the pretext that they are schoolboys discovering the old script in an old theatre. In the beautiful grandeur of the Richmond Theatre which opened in 1899 ( just 17 years after the original Iolanthe opened) this pretext looks odd, rather cheap and the opening sequence of the cast entering through the auditorium with torches and discovering the libretto seemed overlong and laboured. It is never really clear what is gained by the all male cast and after a while the joke wears thin.

When we first meet the fairies in "Tripping Hither ,Tripping thither" the sight of a chorus of men dressed in female underwear tripping across the stage in a faux ballet is amusing and brings new meaning to their "fairy ring". It is intriguing that some of the Mark Smith choreography looks like partial sign language but it is not carried through. There are some original and creative ideas using step ladders, umbrellas and dressing room mirrors in the choreography but they just feel odd on the huge Richmond stage and it's glorious proscenium arch. The Victorian closet is the only major setting and cast members are frequently directed to come out of it.

The hero of the story is the twenty five year old Strephon , played by Richard Carson, a man who is a fairy to his waist and with mortal legs who laments "what is the worth of being half fairy?". He then adds a political dimension by saying he is conservative to the waist and has two radical liberal legs likely to go in opposite parliamentary divisions. It is clear that Gilbert's intention is a barely disguised satire lambasting the political system and presenting the House of Lords as dim witted and ineffective privileged fools. In this production the Lords are dressed in a rag bag of costumes and hats and what looked like dressing gowns and feel like a bunch of university graduates having a laugh rather than the fusty old Lords.

Sullivan's score is acclaimed as one of the best of G&S operas but it lacks a
really strong memorable comedy number like their better known titles. Here the accompaniment is stripped back to a single piano under musical director Richard Baker but it reinforces the feeling of a show being produced on the cheap. It works best in the solo numbers. When Act 2 opens with Private Willis(Duncan Sandilands) "When all night long a chap remains" in front of house tabs we have a delightful comic variety style act and then later when the Lord chancellor (Alistair Hill) sings "When you're lying awake" we again get a better feel of G&S's sense of fun.

The Fairy Queen is played by Richard Russell Edwards , looking like Dr Evadne Hinge before putting her gown on and rules over the fairy horde with a
disdainful glare. Her young fairies sing the soprano parts but too often Gilbert's words are lost in the process .

I applaud Sasha Regan's efforts in keeping the G&S catalogue alive and it is ripe for fresh ideas and updating but this silliest of their stories is rendered even sillier by this presentation and the limited staging budget looks cheap on a traditional proscenium arch stage.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★

Seat: Stalls Row N | Price of Ticket: £34
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