A hundred and twenty years ago, Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe was the first new production to be staged at the Savoy Theatre; now the D'Oyly Carte company have brought it home in a season for the Queen's golden jubilee; it is followed in the spring by The Yeomen Of The Guard.
The parliamentary setting of the piece, as the programme tautologously notes, "has always been perennially topical"; however, the biggest political laughs come not for the unreformed, coronetted Lords of the male chorus but for a couple of lines in parliamentary sentry Private Willis's Act Two opening number, when he wishes that politicians could make the trains run on time and notes, possibly with half an eye on the present régime, that every politico in the making "begins as a little Radical and ends as a little Conservative". Less hearteningly, the loudest guffaws of all come for "fairy" gags throughout the evening: when, for instance, the young ward in Chancery Phyllis asks her beloved Strephon (offspring of the once-banished fairy Iolanthe and a mortal man) which half of him is fairy and is told the upper half, her relief is not entirely maidenly.
Mark Bailey's set design is simple and cartoon-like, from a sheep on wheels which becomes the Lord Chancellor's Woolsack to a bulging, skew-whiff Big Ben. Martin Connor's direction likewise veers occasionally towards the Looney Tunes; it is a nice touch that the chorus of Fairies includes a generously-built girl who never quite fits into her ethereal role, but potentially more awkward that she also happens to be the only black member of the cast. Choreographer Bill Deamer tries to make a virtue of not tightly drilling his choruses: sometimes (mostly with the Fairies) this gives the impression of individual characters amid the ensemble, at other moments (mostly with the Lords) it just looks a little lax.
Paul Bentley's Lord Chancellor is an affable delight as he agonises over whether to award himself marital custody of Phyllis; he almost manages to keep up with the relentless quick-fire patter, even by G&S standards, of the daunting Nightmare Song. Jill Pert's Queen of the Fairies has more than a touch of the Patricia Routledge Lady Bracknells about her, making her a formidable champion of young Strephon's suit to Phyllis against the massed ranks of the upper chamber. Paul A. Heywood as Strephon and Maria Jones as Iolanthe are on the anodyne side, both consistently outshone by Charlotte Page's Phyllis. Private Willis is of course written to be a scene-stealer, and Royce Mills bundles it up expertly into his busby. The more poignant passages of Sullivan's score are given requisite weight in a crisp rendition under John Owen Edwards, but both the staging and the audience reception are far more concerned with the comic side of affairs.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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