Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe – All-male production at the Union Theatre

Gilbert & Sullivan
Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri – a comic opera in two acts to a libretto by W. S. Gilbert, music by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Strephon – Gianni Onori
Phyllis – Alan Richardson
Earl Tolloller – Matthew James White
Private Willis – Raymond Tait
Earl Mountararat – Kingsley Hall
Leila – Adam Lewis Ford
Iolanthe – Christopher Finn
Lord Chancellor – Shaun McCourt
The Fairy Queen – Kris Manuel
Celia – Reuben Kaye
Ensemble – Rob Wilshaw, Robin Rayner, Matthew McLoughlin, Shane Lindley, Tom Idelson & Anthony Delaney

Chris Mundy – Musical Director & Piano
Sasha Regan – Director & Producer
Mark Smith – Choreographer
Stewart Charlesworth – Production Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer
Jean Gray – Costume Supervisor

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 20 November, 2010
Venue: Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1

Casting all-male productions of Gilbert & Sullivan is getting to be a habit at the Union Theatre. Having already staged “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado” en travesti, as it were, the Union now gives us “Iolanthe” by an all-male cast. This way of staging G & S certainly gives these somewhat dated shows a kick up the drawers and all the better for it, say I, and I write as one who is not the world’s greatest G & S fan, although I can see how original, clever and popular they were in their heyday, the days of D’Oyly Carte and the Savoy Theatre. There always seems, however, to be an audience for G & S, although it may not be the one we once knew. The Union staging of “The Pirates of Penzance” was so successful that it subsequently transferred to Wilton’s Music Hall and the Rose Theatre in Kingston. Its “Iolanthe” could well be another hit.

With G & S creations now firmly out of copyright you can do whatever you like with them as Joseph Papp found when he put a radical new gloss on “The Pirates of Penzance” in New York’s Central Park. It gave that show a whole new life altogether with successful productions following-on to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. English National Opera has also had immense success with several G & S productions, most famously Jonathan Miller’s staging of “The Mikado”, which is destined to run forever, and quite rightly too. It’s odd, though, that the Royal Opera House has never staged Gilbert & Sullivan. It could do G & S very proud.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s plots are usually weird to begin with, whatever you do with them. They created their own topsy-turvy world that never really existed, a world in which fairies and lords of the realm cavort together, where all pirates are orphans, where a lowly Japanese tailor can become a Lord High Executioner, where a pair of gondoliers can change the monarchy and where ghosts come to life. Most of their inventions were satires on the society of the time, its social mores, laws and public behaviour. These matters don’t really bother us now and in fact are pretty meaningless, even in W. S. Gilbert’s clever and witty lyrics. What is beyond criticism, however, is Sir Arthur Sullivan’s brilliant scores.

The plot of “Iolanthe” is about as strange as they get. It concerns a group of fairies bemoaning the fact that one of their number – Iolanthe – has been banished for twenty-five years for marrying a mortal. Her son, Strephon, a shepherd, is half-fairy and half-mortal, and in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess. She cannot believe that Iolanthe is Strephon’s mother because she has not aged in a quarter of a century. Broken-hearted, she agrees instead to marry one of the peers. A typical G & S plot follows with an inexperienced person (Strephon) going into Parliament with some success. Subsequently all hell breaks loose as the fairies decide they do fancy the mortal peers.

There seems to be a lot of mileage here in people talking seriously about being fairies, and it has an especially strong resonance in an all-male production. However, that’s not to say that the men playing fairies are camping it up. Instead the situation is played more or less straight (rather like Mathew Bourne’s male-dominated “Swan Lake”) and sung in the most seductive of falsetto voices. They put across the G & S choruses with great panache and appear to believe every silly word. The Union Theatre is noted for its great ensemble work and the cast of sixteen fills the stage with some expert movement (choreography by Mark Smith), taking turns at playing both fairies and peers-of-the-realm with equal abandon. Director-producer Sasha Regan injects enough jokes to keep her production alive with comedic spirit. There’s a nice touch when the two Earls, discovering that they cannot marry Phyllis, slope off and retreat back into the closet.

Gianni Onori makes a strong Strephon, a Scots shepherd indeed, and Alan Richardson’s Phyllis is a docile creature who engages our sympathy immediately. In the title role Christopher Finn makes Iolanthe almost mystical, while Kris Manuel’s Fairy Queen and Reuben Kaye as Celia make their mark in strongly characterised roles. As the two Earls, Tolloller and Mountararat, Matthew James Willis and Kingsley Hall are amusingly lugubrious. Raymond Tait as the Grenadier Guard Private Willis has his moment in the limelight and deals with it quite charmingly. Although it is a young cast of players, Shaun McCourt as the Lord Chancellor seems a little on the youthful side for his grand robes but he gives his ‘When I went to the bar’ solo with feeling. The piano accompaniment by Chris Mundy is well-managed and it never once seems inadequate as a musical source.

The costumes are quite eye-opening in a mixture of Vivienne Westwood meets Rigby & Peller (HM the Queen’s lingerie supplier) as Jean Gray dresses her fairy-men in tight corsets with assorted accessories which they wear with gay abandon if not pride. All in all it’s another triumph for Sasha Regan and her Union Theatre company.

  • Iolanthe is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 until Saturday 11 December 2010
  • Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 p.m.; matinees Saturday & Sunday 2.30
  • Tickets 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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