We’re told that W.S Gilbert felt that the score provided by Arthur Sullivan for Ruddigore was too subtle and did not bring out the melodramatic and comedic elements. If so, he would have been delighted with the new production from Opera North which shamelessly (and successfully) exploits the gothic and comic potential of the piece even if it cannot entirely disguise its inherent weakness.
It is hard to summarise the plot of Ruddigore, not because of its complexity but rather its inconsistency which results in the motivation of characters changing sometimes several times in a single scene. To escape a family curse that requires him to commit a crime a day Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd (Grant Doyle) fakes his death and assumes the identity of Robin Oakapple as whom he falls in love with Rose Maybud (Amy Freston) who lives her life in accordance with the rules of etiquette. The discovery of his true identity has comic repercussions for a whole range of characters both living and dead.
Director Jo Davies exaggerates the basic ingredients of the plot to great effect and even dares to update a verse of a song to refer to the current Parliamentary expenses scandal. The village has a troupe of professional bridesmaids whom, Davies suggests, have been driven almost to distraction by lack of purpose and so, like Furies, stalk potential married couples constantly bursting into merry but slightly hysterical song.
This edgy approach continues in Heather Shipp’s portrayal of Mad Margaret, a woman made unhinged by being jilted by her lover. The best thing about her performance is that, even after getting married, she cannot quite bring herself under control and gives us a great eccentric character.
Opera North seems to have cornered the market this season with good lighting designers.Although everything is clearly visible, Anna Watson creates a suitably gloomy atmosphere in which long shadows spill across the stage. The main success is, however, the stunning sets from Richard Hudson. This is proved beautiifully when Act One ends with a superb wedding scene that Hudson sets in a church with an entrance so gothic it could be a cemetery.
Even better is the opening to Act Two in which Grant Doyle has fun getting into his villainous role with suitable melodramatic flourishes. The scene opens with him seated like the Phantom of the Opera in a magnificent portrait gallery of his villainous ancestors.
Illusionist Paul Kieve then uses the impressive set to bring to life the characters in the portraits and allow them to express their displeasure direct to their disappointing offspring. It is a most unusual and unexpected showstopper.
Even though the material is not as strong as one might hope, this production of Ruddigore demonstrates that need not deter an enthusiastic and talented team from delivering excellent entertainment. Bravo!