Last November’s Union, Southwark, revival of Iolanthe has now moved east into Wilton’s, and it’s another humdinger from director Sasha Regan and her all-male company, with superb musical direction (and playing) by Christopher Mundy at his grand piano.
The eerie, enchanted atmosphere of Wilton’s is even more suited to this production than it was to its all-male Gilbert and Sullivan predecessor, The Pirates of Penzance; for Regan’s big idea is to have the fairies and the House of Lords animated by the one bunch of public school boys tumbling out of the wardrobe in improvised gossamer wings and corsets, or else in dressing gowns and top hats.
It’s as though the old theatre comes alive in the spirit of invention, and after-dark improvisation. The gallery echoes with distant choruses, entrances are made through the audience, the cast rush hither and thither like the sprites in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lord Snooty and his Pals, and sometimes both.
And how pertinent do you want your musical comedy to be? Poor little half-fairy Strephon (Louis Maskell) is condemned to be both a Liberal and a Conservative in the upper house while seeking to marry the Lord Chancellor’s ward of court, Phyllis (Alan Richardson).
Personal destiny mingles with political satire: Strephon’s mother, the fairy Iolanthe (Christopher Finn), was banished for marrying a mortal. There’s no resolution possible until the Lords admit that fairies can mingle freely, and carnally, among them, and that legislative havoc can be replaced by an acceptance of change and logic in the laws.
There’s no better, more gracefully conceived plot in the whole G&S canon, and the score is certainly one of the very best, with rousing marches and anthems, beautiful duets and some particularly fine numbers for the Lord Chancellor and the Fairy Queen.
As the first, Shaun McCourt doesn’t try too hard to be old or funny, and gets the words out admirably, especially in his sleep-deprivation patter number; and as the second, Alex Weatherhill is simply magnificent as a restrained contralto in furs and coronet.
Weatherill sets the tone: as in the Union’s Pirates, there’s nothing camp or “Hinge and Bracket” about this, and the chorus of fairies and lords is superbly drilled in Mark Smith’s witty choreography, and all the funnier for being so.
They all sing in splendid falsetto, as well as their own “man” voices. Matthew James Willis catches the ear, especially, as Lord Tolloller, and Raymond Tait is hilarious as Private Willis (“When all night long a chap remains”) in a kilt and sporran. - Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from 22 November 2011, and this production's premiere at the Union Theatre.
Where can you find members of the House of Lords consorting with a band of fairies? Answer: in Southwark where the company that produced the award-winning all-male Pirates of Penzance now presents another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe.
Gilbert’s tale begins as the fairies beg their Queen to free their dear sister Iolanthe, banished for marrying a mortal. The Queen agrees and Iolanthe returns. She introduces her son from that marriage, Strephon, who is fairy-head over mortal-heels in love with beautiful Phylliss. But she’s the ward of the Lord Chancellor who, along with his fellow peers, is in love with her too. He’s not going to allow their marriage.
Misunderstandings, amorous tangles and revelations follow, with the law and politicians coming in for a good mocking. Finally true love wins through, not only for the lovers but for all concerned, in an ending which manages, in true Gilbertian style, to be both funny and touching.
Indeed it’s the balance between humour and feeling that Director Sasha Regan achieves that is the show’s strength. Putting an all-male cast in a play about fairies risks camp parody. But the integrity and dedication of the strong ensemble is palpable. Alan Richardson’s sweet-voiced and tender portrayal of Phylliss deserves special mention as does Kris Manuel’s blend of archness and humanity in his Fairy Queen.
Mark Smith’s choreography is outstanding. The fairies flit lightly with steps that perfectly match their songs. The Lords resemble a flock of crows as they swoop hither and thither, at turns flustered or pompous. Costumes by Jean Gray are wonderfully eclectic: dressing gowns and robes, with conker chains of office for the Lords and a mix of Victorian undergarments for the fairies. Sullivan’s fine music is given full rein with musical direction from Chris Mundy. It’s a magical evening. Put on your wings and fly to Southwark to catch it.
- Louise Gooding