Sasha Regan’s All-Male Patience [Union Theatre]

Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride – A comic opera in two acts to a libretto by W. S. Gilbert with music by Arthur Sullivan

Patience – Edward Charles Bernstone
Archibald Grosvenor – Stiofàn O’Doherty
Reginald Bunthorne – Dominic Brewer
The Lady Jane – Sean Quigley
The Duke of Dunstable – Matthew James Willis
Major Murgatroyd – Thomas Heard
Colonel Calverley – Edward Simpson
The Lady Angela – James Lacey
The Lady Saphir – Mark Gillon
The Lady Ella – Matthew Markwick
Maidens – Oliver Metcalfe, William Whelton & Daniel Bartlett
Dragoons – Raymond Tait, Jarred Page & Gareth Andrews

Richard Bates – Musical Director & Piano

Sasha Regan – Director
Drew McOnie – Choreographer
Michael England – Musical Supervisor
Kingsley Hall – Set & Costume Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 26 February, 2012
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London

Well, Sasha Regan has done it again – gradually working her way through the chefs-d’oeuvres of Gilbert & Sullivan, she has already placed her signature on her all-male productions of The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe at the Union Theatre in Southwark, and has now arrived at Patience. This one seems equally capable of the same success that befell her Iolanthe which transferred to Wilton’s Music Hall for an extended run, and her Pirates, which also transferred to Wilton’s as well as the Rose Theatre in Kingston, and is scheduled to tour Australia this year.

Not being an avid G&S fanatic myself (although we all know plenty who are and who shall say them nay?), I have welcomed this new spin on the already topsy-turvy world of Gilbert & Sullivan. Sasha Regan has refreshed the parts of G&S that other companies just haven’t been able to reach. Don’t get me wrong: these are not downmarket drag shows aimed at the lowest common denominator, but instead are elegant, stylish and exuberant productions of pieces that might otherwise have passed into desuetude. Regan has the knack of making us believe in the crazy world of G&S, an archaic society well past its sell-by date and to this end has assembled a company of young male actor-singers with the most astoundingly perfect high soprano voices.

Patience premiered in 1881 at the Opera Comique in London before transferring to the Savoy Theatre where it became the first stage production in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. Gilbert wanted to base his plot on one of his Bab Ballads called The Rival Curates but felt he couldn’t satirise the church, an act that would have been in extreme bad taste. So he took on the idea of satirising the then current aesthetic movement which rated beauty above social or moral attitudes in the arts. Here in Patience Gilbert ridicules the work of two poets who are vying for the hand of the lowly, eponymous milkmaid. Although the name of Oscar Wilde is generally invoked as being representative of aestheticism at the time, it is more likely that Gilbert based one of his two poets, Reginald Bunthorne, on the effete and affected work of Swinburne or Rossetti, while the other, Archibald Grosvenor, more resembles the simpler and down-to-earth writings of William Morris and his ilk. Linking Oscar Wilde with Patience is an idea that has crept in over the years, brought about by later chroniclers wishing to put a spin on Gilbert’s intentions.

Patience, the heroine, certainly lives up to her name and is almost wilfully perverse in her belief that love is a duty and not a pleasure. To marry a man who is perfect would never do for her, as it might render her happy and therefore against the true nature of love. While G&S were mocking men attracted to aestheticism, they also guyed the females who similarly followed the trend. Although the ladies in question here slavishly pursue the effete Bunthorne, when he finally becomes engaged to Patience, they turn instead to admiring the peculiarities of his rival Grosvenor. It takes the dragoons and their wish to also become aesthetes before the love-sick maidens come to their senses.

Sasha Regan’s production emphasises the humour with great charm and felicitous tact, presenting the situation in the most matter of fact way possible. We come to believe in these shenanigans and are wholly seduced by them. The singing is superb and whether solos, duets or the choruses, the cast makes a mighty fine sound. Edward Charles Bernstone as Patience is as touchingly sweet as any performance in the piece’s history can ever have been. Among the other ‘ladies’ James Lacey as Angela, Mark Gillon as Saphir, Sean Quigley as Jane and Matthew Markwick as Ella are touching in the extreme. Well supported by the other ‘maidens’, they achieve musical miracles without milking the sentiment dry.

On the other side (as it were), Dominic Brewer as Bunthorne and Stiofàn O’Doherty as Grosvenor are well-matched, different as chalk and cheese but eminently likeable and, what’s more, really funny. Regan’s production is prettily designed by Kingsley Hall. Watch for the maidens knocking back the cuppas as they enter on their tea trolleys. Choreographer Drew McOnie keeps everyone prettily on the move in the Union’s tight little island of space, and Richard Bates, in a fetching little number redolent of Liberty out of Laura Ashley, holds the keys to the kingdom in his skilful accompaniment on the pianoforte. A real treat, so don’t miss.

  • Patience is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 10 March 2012
  • Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 p.m. & Sundays at 2 & 6 p.m.
  • Tickets 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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