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Review: Iolanthe (Richmond Theatre and tour)

Sasha Regan revives her first Gilbert and Sullivan show for a spring tour

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The ensemble of Fairies from Sasha Regan's All Male Iolanthe
© Harriet Buckingham

Another year, another ramshackle night of meticulous fun with Sasha's boys. This revival of her 2010 Iolanthe – or Sasha Regan's All Male Iolanthe to bill it in full – is an unalloyed delight.

I tell a lie, it is a bit alloyed. That's because the company's totemic soprano, Alan Richardson, is otherwise engaged in the West End (as Mary Sunshine in Chicago, naturally) and so unavailable to sing Phyllis. His replacement as Gilbert and Sullivan's ingénue heroine is plucky ingénu hero Joe Henry, and he has big slingbacks to fill.

Gilbert and Sullivan would have been bemused to learn that their Savoy operas are now being performed by all-male casts, yet this troupe is keeping the flame alive on minimal resources: 16 players and an upright piano. That instrument is in the dizzy-fingered hands of pitch-perfect musical director Richard Baker.

Iolanthe is one of the silliest Gilbert and Sullivan operas, but it shoots barbs that strike home even today. WS Gilbert's chief target, as it also was in The Pirates of Penzance, is the principle of hereditary peerage and patronage. The House of Lords gets a good kicking as Strephon, a half-fairy, discovers from yummy mummy Iolanthe that his father is the Lord Chancellor.

The slapstick heart of Cal McCrystal's outré production for ENO divided opinion – I liked it, others not – in a way this feast of wit is unlikely to do. Yes, it's camp (how could it not be with a bunch of grown men playing fairies?) but it is always respectful of the material, diction is immaculate and every word cuts through. Moments of tenderness are allowed their space and comedy arises from situations rather than strap-on gags.

Falsetto singing is variable this time round, with the best of it coming from Lee Greenaway's show-stealing Leila and Christopher Finn's Iolanthe, the latter a character who's too often absent from her own opera. Instead, the singing honours go to Duncan Sandilands, a buff buffo bass whose press-ups send the Fairy Queen (Richard Russell Edwards) into paroxysms, and tenor Adam Pettit as a thrillingly secure Lord Tolloller in his double act with the charismatic Michael Burgen as Lord Mountararat. Alastair Hill is another star: he negotiates the Lord Chancellor's treacherous patter with aplomb, even tongue-ripping horrors like "From the greengrocer tree you get grapes and green pea…".

This being a Sasha Regan show, visual wit does for the eye what comic timing does for the ear. The director locates every imaginable sweet spot in Gilbert's dated dialogue and has the audience hooting even at the creakiest lines. Her production concept in which a group of boys explores an old dark house is so tenuous it's forgotten within five minutes, but it gives designer Stewart Charlesworth a ripely grungy style to latch on to.

The show's real magic lies in its dance routines. Mark Smith has returned eight years on to recreate his dazzling ensembles, and they are a feast. As well as rumbustious fun for the Lords a-leaping, the deaf choreographer ingeniously uses signage as a dance device for the fairies. It's mysterious, beautiful and an elegant alternative to the male fouetté.

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