At the beginning of the 21st century, Gilbert and Sullivan have found a real champion in director Martin Duncan. Having recently provided us with a spanking new Busby Berkley-ish version of HMS Pinafore, he has now turned his attention to the equally daft, but irresistibly charming, The Gondoliers. And what a kick-start it is, to the new Venetian-themed Chichester season.
The story of The Gondoliers, which satirises both the aristocracy and snobbery in all grades of society, follows Gilbert's favourite theme of topsy-turvydom. "I am told", said he, "that the public like the topsy-turvy best, so this time they are going to get it" and indeed we do. The plot focuses on two newly married gondoliers, one of whom (but no one knows which) is the true King of the neverland island of Barataria.
Featuring cartoon Italians, down at heel Spanish nobles and a Grand Inquisitor of Dickensian proportions, this production is set (by Ashley Martin-Davis) both in St. Mark’s Square, Venice and by an art-deco swimming pool masquerading as the palace in Barataria. With act one outfitted in 1950’s style kitsch-taffeta, and act two kitted out in some bizarrely surreal black and white numbers the show has a wonderful overall look
The game company, come from a background of opera and musical comedy and sing and dance (in Jonathan Lunn’s nimble choreography) with aplomb. The show has been prettily re-orchestrated for a twelve piece on-stage band.
Liza Pulman, as Tessa, is outstanding, particularly in her “When a Merry Maid Marries” number. Joe Shovelton’s Marco delivers an irresistible “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” and James Saxon’s Inquisitor commands the stage as a sort of musical version of any combination of all those, larger than life characters from Dickens.
If there are any casting quibbles, I would target Martin Marquez as the Duke of Plaza-Toro, the principal comedic interest. He is not a natural comedian and makes heavy weather of his patter songs. As his wife, the ever-reliable Louise Gold, helps out but is woefully under-used.
The problem with The Gondoliers is that there is too much of the same, too many barely indistinguishable romantic numbers and too many repetitive patter songs. Nevertheless, Gilbert’s wit, supplemented by some additional barbed material, targeting New Labour, secures a high rating in audience satisfaction at the Chichester Festival Theatre.