Review: Iolanthe (London Coliseum)

The new Gilbert and Sullivan offering from English National Opera is sheer bliss

Marcus Farnsworth as Strephon and Samantha Price as Iolanthe in Iolanthe (ENO)
Marcus Farnsworth as Strephon and Samantha Price as Iolanthe in Iolanthe (ENO)
© Clive Barda

Welcome to a topsy-turvy Cal McCrystal maze where fairies get the hots for mortals and noble lords ride parliamentary trains. ENO‘s new Iolanthe is one in the eye for Gilbert and Sullivan purists, although after Mike Leigh’s dreary Pirates of Penzance any surviving traditionalists will be drowned out by relieved cheers. Not that it isn’t a Marmite production – lord knows we’ve had a few of those recently – but only a churl is likely to moan.

The woodland rulebook states that fairies may not, on pain of death, marry muggles. Like all bad laws, though, it’s made to be broken… and that is all you need to know about the plot of Iolanthe. Cue a glorious night of mayhem, madness and misunderstandings as the entire House of Lords gets it on with the sprites.

Clive Mantle acts as warm-up man, entering in the bewhiskered guise of fire chief Captain Shaw to unleash a string of knowing one-liners. (The audience, he notes, runs the gamut from middle- to upper-middle-class – "We are a melting pot"…) Duly softened up, we’re sitting ducks and McCrystal moves in for the kill. Flamingoes in the English countryside? Who cares. Why the unicorn? Any excuse for a sight gag.

Jokes come thick, fast and physical. Some are milked like the pantomime cow until their udders ache; others get in the way, none more than the hilarious but misplaced sheep action that goes on behind "None shall part us from each other", a sweetly fervent duet for Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne) and Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth).

'Send it to Broadway'

The loved-up pair sing ravishingly and act with delicious self-awareness, topping off their night with a riotous clog dance. And there’s the same level of class all the way through ENO’s perfectly cast all-British company, from Barnaby Rea’s subversive Private Willis to Andrew Shore's patter-perfect Lord Chancellor. Samantha Price’s elegant Iolanthe is sprinkled with fairy dust, and in the aristo trio "If you go in you’re sure to win", actor Richard Leeming (as the Lord Chancellor’s page) bears the hilarious brunt of McCrystal’s full-on, spot-on visual comedy. It’s one man, three guv’nors and then some.

The brace of earls, Tolloller (Ben Johnson) and Mountararat (Ben McAteer), are the smoothest and wittiest of the lot, and their singing is sublime. A touch heavy on the camp, perhaps, but amid the barrage of bolt-on innuendo they fit right in. When the Fairy Queen (Yvonne Howard) mispronounces Strephon as Strap-on we know precisely where we’re heading.

Sullivan’s score for this Savoy opera is notably more textured than his bigger popular hits, with fewer earworms but a greater sense of love. Conductor Timothy Henty and a crack ENO Orchestra played it as real music, neo-classical with bags of charm and astonishing tenderness even in the set pieces; as for the ineffable ENO Chorus, ladies in peapods and acorn cups, gents in ermine robes, they were game for anything.

The late Paul Brown‘s sets are brilliantly colourful and off-the-wall, a worthy tribute to his memory. The steam train’s arrival is his helicopter moment, a rude intrusion of the Industrial Revolution into an Arcadian landscape. As for the choreography, whoever thought of stealing Lizzi Gee from Sasha Regan’s All-Male G&S troupe deserves a medal. And Regan’s own Iolanthe is due shortly so bring on the fun.

A few things are not quite there yet, for instance the way the fairies’ gesticulations slow down their dialogue in Act One. Fix those and there’s a fifth star waiting. Then send it to Broadway – they’ll love it. As did I.

Iolanthe runs in repertory at the London Coliseum until7 April.