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Princess Ida (Finborough Theatre)

Gilbert and Sullivan's show is revived at the Finborough Theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Pocket-sized stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan have been as frequent, and as well done, as small-scale Sondheim in recent years, mostly at the Union. Phil Willmott's Steam Industry scores a mini-triumph in restoring the beautiful music and lyrics of the rarely seen Princess Ida (1884), the only three-act G&S collaboration and one nestling chronologically between Iolanthe and The Mikado.

A sort of Pre-Raphaelite Love's Labour's Lost, the libretto – itself a pastiche of a Tennyson poem, The Princess – recounts the royal resolution of a cradle marriage between Ida, daughter of King Gama, and Hilarion, son of King Hildebrand. Ida's hidden away in a collegiate recluse with other "new" women, while Hilarion and his chums breach the castle walls, dress up as females, and win their favours.

Willmott does not update the story, but rearranges it so that Gama (the brilliant G&S patter specialist Simon Butteriss, now more richly baritonal than ever) is a Protector, not a King, and a lascivious old goat who wants to keep his ward (as Ida now is), not his daughter, for himself. He also grabs a couple of other numbers from other characters, notably "This Helmet I Suppose" which he turns into a suggestive disrobement before his comeuppance.

Not everything about the adaptation is spot-on, and there are a few sore thumb crudities. But, on the whole, this is a delightful production, designed by Maira Vazeou against a large version of Landseer's Stag at Bay which opens to reveal an Alma-Tadema vista of statuary (one male torso has been painfully violated), blue skies and marbled terracing. Gilbert's satire on Darwinian theory, the sex war and female emancipation is as sharp and funny as ever.

There's a bit too much nudge-nudge simpering among the disguised boys in their garlands and pastel robes, but most of the comedy is well judged and the articulation of the songs, driven along by some heroic piano playing by musical directors Richard Baker and Nick Barstow, is first- rate; as in the pop-up Sweeney Todd on Shaftesbury Avenue, you rejoice in such skilled musicality at close quarters, though the pianos occasionally sound tinny.

Deft on-the-spot choreography by Thomas Michael Voss does a cheeky Forbidden Broadway Les Misérables job on the girls wielding hockey stocks and waving a red flag. And all the ensemble numbers are a rhythmic and melodic joy.

Best singing, apart from Butteriss, comes from Victoria Quigley advocating the Mighty Must in women's rights, and from Bridget Costello and Zac Wancke (he might need to change that name) as the romantic leads; two babies in both the story and their no doubt soon burgeoning careers.

Princess Ida runs at Finborough Theatre until 18 April

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