The Yeomen of the Guard at The Tower of London

Gilbert & Sullivan
The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid – comic opera in two acts with libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Sir Richard Cholmondeley – Gareth Jones
Colonel Fairfax – David Curry
Sergeant Meryll – Bruce Graham
Leonard Meryll – Jeremy Finch
Wilfred Shadbolt – Donald Maxwell
Jack Point – Paul Nicholas
Elsie Maynard – Charlotte Page
Phoebe Meryll – Victoria Byron
Dame Carruthers – Susan Gorton
Kate – Catrine Kirkman

National Youth Theatre Chorus
Chorus & Orchestra of Carl Rosa Opera
Wyn Davies

Peter Mulloy – Director and production design
Tim Speechley – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Arnold Jarvist

Reviewed: 13 September, 2009
Venue: The Tower of London

It should have been a very special occasion to experience Gilbert & Sullivan’s most operatic collaboration, “The Yeomen of the Guard”, in the imposing midst of the very building in which it is set: the Tower of London. But so shambolic was this Carl Rosa Opera production that it was all-but-impossible to appreciate the performance.

A ticketing fiasco meant long queues for seat reallocation, delaying the start by 15 minutes. The stage was located in the moat just outside the Tower, with a long stretch of a few thousand audience seats. Natural sound projection was impossible, so everything was amplified (even then, the constant rumble of lorries on the adjacent main road and passing overhead traffic meant it was a struggle to hear in quieter sections). The amplification was erratic. Principal singers had roving microphones, but the chorus – the backbone of all G & S operas – did not, so the effectiveness of much of Sullivan’s delightful music (especially the dramatic Act One finale) was compromised. The excellent orchestra, under the sensitive baton of Wyn Davies, was also amplified, but in a way that ironed-out all nuances in this the most sumptuous of G & S scores. For extensive stretches in Act One, the sound failed entirely. After several minutes of dumb-show, Peter Mulloy came onto the stage with a hand-held microphone, which was passed from principal to principal like a relay baton. To its credit, the cast coped with these ludicrous antics with the utmost professionalism. Many of the audience seats (including mine) were too far from the stage to see details, so large screens were erected on either side displaying live lose-ups. But the camera operators didn’t have a clue: the images were frequently of characters who weren’t singing!

Beneath all the chaos, however, there were some enjoyable moments. The cast was uneven, but there were some strong individuals: it was an especial treat to hear Bruce Graham’s rendition of Sergeant Meryll’s ‘A laughing boy but yesterday’ (cut after the opera’s premiere). Meryll’s capricious daughter Phoebe, who “likes all brave men”, was played with due liveliness by lovely-voiced Victoria Byron; and booming baritone Donald Maxwell did a great job as her erstwhile lover, the terminally morose Head Jailor Wilfred Shadbolt. Gareth Jones provided a reassuring presence as the Lieutenant of the Tower. A principal highlight was the sublime madrigal ‘Strange adventure’, which benefitted from a beautiful contribution by Catrine Kirkman (who made the most of her cameo role as Kate).

As Colonel Fairfax, the falsely-accused condemned hero who escapes his cell and spends most of the opera disguised as Meryll’s son, David Curry was not without charm; but he tended to gabble his lines, and his singing-voice lapsed too often into a Broadway style. Susan Gorton was suitably formidable – both in stature and beefy voice – as the Tower’s Keeper, Dame Carruthers; unfortunately most of the words she spoke and sung were gibberish.

The ‘big name’ draw, Paul Nicholas (from the 1980s’ BBC TV sit-com “Just Good Friends”), proved a capable if nervous exponent of the main comedy role, the strolling jester Jack Point. Nicholas had a decent voice and likeable manner, but his musical performance was extremely shaky, and his lack of confidence meant that too many opportunities for laughs were missed. This was a problem with the performance as a whole: “The Yeomen of the Guard” may be Gilbert & Sullivan’s most serious and romantic work, but it still contains plenty of comedy, most of which went for nothing in this drearily deadpan production.

Costumes were effective. The set was unremarkable (a basic construction at either side of the stage with a blank screen in the middle) – perhaps the thinking was why waste effort recreating the Tower of London when the real thing was looming large. Carl Rosa Opera does not receive any Arts Council funding, so in many ways it is a miracle that its artistic standards are so high. Peter Mulloy certainly seemed to be suggesting that we should be grateful for what we got: he had the gall to take his own curtain call, unashamedly implying that, despite all the difficulties, the company had pulled off a triumph. It hadn’t. This ‘Yeomen’ should have been so much better. Mulloy ought to take a trip to the Buxton International Festival to see how a similarly unsubsidised company can achieve successful first-class, vibrant Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

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