01 April 2011

Iolanthe - Wiltons Music Hall, Wednesday 30th March 2011

Twenty-five years previous to the action of the opera, Iolanthe, a fairy, had committed the capital crime of marrying a mortal. The Queen of the Fairies had commuted the death sentence to banishment for life, on condition that Iolanthe leave her husband without explanation and never see him again. Her son, Strephon, a shepherd, has grown up as half fairy, half mortal. Strephon loves Phyllis, a shepherdess who is also a Ward in Chancery. She returns his love, and knows nothing of his mixed origin.

The Queen is prevailed upon by other Fairies to recall Iolanthe from her exile. Strephon joins the glad reunion and announces his intention of marrying Phyllis in spite of the Lord Chancellor, her guardian, who refuses permission.

Meanwhile the entire House of Lords is enamoured of Phyllis. They appeal to the Lord Chancellor to give her to whichever Peer she may select. The Lord Chancellor is also suffering the pangs of love, but feels he has no legal right to assign Phyllis to himself. Phyllis declines to marry a Peer; Strephon pleads his cause in person to the Lord Chancellor, but in vain. Iolanthe enters and tries to console her son. Since she, like all Fairies, looks like a girl of seventeen, Phyllis and the Peers misinterpret the situation; they ridicule Strephon's claim that Iolanthe is his mother. Phyllis declares that she will now marry either Lord Mountararat or Lord Tolloller. Strephon summons the Fairies to his aid, who take their revenge on the Peers by sending Strephon to Parliament and influencing both Houses to pass any bills he may introduce. His innovations culminate in a bill to throw the Peerage open to competitive examination. The Peers appeal to the Fairies to desist. The Fairies have fallen in love with the Peers and would like to oblige, but it is too late to undo the spell. The Queen reproaches her subjects for their feminine weakness. She acknowledges her own weakness for a sentry on guard outside the Houses of Parliament, Private Willis, but asserts that she has it under control.

Lords Mountararat and Tolloller discover that if either loses Phyllis to the other, family tradition requires that they fight unto death; both therefore renounce Phyllis in the name of friendship. The Lord Chancellor, after considerable struggle, pleads his own cause before himself and convinces himself that the law will allow him to marry Phyllis.

Meanwhile Strephon makes Phyllis understand that his mother is a fairy, and they are reconciled. They persuade Iolanthe to appeal to the Lord Chancellor. When he resists her appeal, she reveals that she is his wife and thus again incurs the death penalty. The other Fairies, however, have married their respective Peers, and announce to the Queen that they all have incurred the same sentence. The Lord Chancellor suggests an amendment to Fairy Law which saves the situation – it becomes law that a Fairy must die if she doesn’t marry a mortal. In order to save her life, the Queen marries Private Willis. All is resolved happily, and everyone flies off to Fairyland.
Iolanthe, a Fairy, Strephon’s mother – Christopher Finn
Lord Chancellor – Shaun McCourt
Fairy Queen – Alex Weatherhill
Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd – Louis Maskell
Phyllis, an Arcadian Shepherdess and Ward of Chancery – Alan Richardson
Lord Tolloler – Matthew Willis
Lord Mountarrarat – Luke Fredericks
Celia, a Fairy– Reuben Kaye
Leila, another Fairy – Adam Lewis Ford
Private Willis, of the Grenadier Guards – Raymond Tate

Creative Team:
Director – Sasha Regan
Choreographer – Mark Smith
Musical Director – Christopher Mundy
Design – Stewart Charlesworth
Lighting – Steve Miller

Once again, hurry along to Wilton’s Music Hall to catch another all-male version of a G&S favourite. I waxed very lyrical about their production of The Pirates of Penzance back in April last year, and now I’m going to wax very lyrical about Iolanthe, which is presented very much in the same vein. Of course, any operetta that deals with the problem of having two political parties ruled over by one leader is going to be topical at the moment, so this show is as topical today as it was back in 1881, bringing an extra level of freshness to the satire, and the jokes seem as new and funny as the day they were written. It would, of course, be just that bit too easy to go over the top and camp up a show about fairies (particularly when the entire cast are male) but that’s the genius of these productions – they are played totally (for want of a better word) straight and, frankly, are much the better for it. Gone is the archness of many G&S productions I’ve sat through (and suffered through) and in its place you find a sparkling, paint-fresh show that’s full of wit and humour, and a goodly dollop of affection for tradition. The direction and choreography are, once again, bang on, and so full of wonderful little details that you would really have to see this at least twice in order to pick up on everything. Nobody’s attention flags for a moment, everyone on stage is alert, involved and picking up and reacting to cues verbal and visual. It looks effortless (which is a clear sign that everyone is working bloody hard), sounds great and is a joy from start to finish. In fact, just like before, I started to screen out the fact that I was watching men play women’s roles. If not as revelatory as the relationship between Frederick and Ruth in Pirates, I saw several things with fresh eyes and, probably for the very first time, felt a lump well up in my throat during the final scene between Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor.

The company still lacks voices in the bass range in both chorus and principal roles – I found myself searching for some of the harmonies in the vocal lines and missing them. There are times when a bass-baritone role cannot be sung by someone with a much lighter voice and be musically convincing (or accurate). Charm and enthusiasm will get you a long way, but it won’t get you everywhere. I’m not sure whether it would be fair of me to say that there were too many “musical” voices on the stage at the expense of some trained “operetta” ones – although G&S can be technically demanding vocally, perhaps the “operetta sound” contributes to that feeling of slightly knowing archness which it was a relief not to have to deal with. The lack of archness in the dialogue, however, was a great pleasure and much to be applauded. It was delivered naturally, with simplicity and charm, which contributed greatly to my enjoyment of it (refer back to my Pirates review and the Henry Lytton quote within it); it takes considerable skill to make dialogue sound natural. The direction was extremely well done – simple and very touching where this was needed (in some of the dialogue between Strephon and Phyllis, for example, and during the Fairy Queen’s big number in Act 2), and appropriately complex and dense elsewhere.

If I have one minor criticism of the production (other than there being too few – if any – true basses in the company) then it was that the costuming of Iolanthe and Phyllis needs to be looked at. The chaps playing these roles are very, very similar physically and in terms of hair and eye colour, and as their costumes looked broadly similar, even I found myself getting slightly confused at some points over which was which. Yes, I know that this is a very minor point, but I think its justified.

Casting was (almost) perfect; Louis Maskell was the butchest, most credible Strephon I’ve seen, with great delivery, total belief in the dialogue and a wonderfully dark-chocolate voice to go with his beautiful dark-chocolate hair (the kind that you just ache to run your fingers (and possibly other body parts) through in order to muss it up. Whoever put him in that white shirt, fawn trousers and braces knows a great deal about how well-cut clothes show off the body underneath them. Lucky sheep! He made an excellent counterpoint to the smaller and slightly wispier Alan Richardson and their scenes together were very credible in an Arcadian kinda way. Alex Weatherhill was a warm yet dignified Fairy Queen, believably maternal yet remaining necessarily slightly detached from “her” troupe of dainty fairies. His vocal sound was firm and convincingly mezzo. Christopher Finn was a charming, beautiful and empathetic Iolanthe and Stuart McCourt a wonderfully “born middle-aged” Lord Chancellor. Raymond Tait was perhaps vocally miscast as Private Willis (the bass/bass-baritone role) but was funny and engaging and obviously possessed of great comic timing.

I can say without exaggeration that every single person in the audience last night went home feeling that they had been brilliantly entertained. I won’t say more – just go by yourself a ticket and see for yourself.

 The company's production of "HMS Pinafore" from 2007, which I desperately wish I had seen.

What the critics thought (these reviews are from the orignal Union Theatre run - the Wiltons run has a slightly different cast)





1 comment:

beccy said...

What a fabulous show.
Oh my, I am still sighing nearly 24 hours later. Lovely, pretty boys singing so beautifully in a half restored building. Paying carefully attention to the witty score with it’s parallels to the government coalition of today the all-male cast provided joy, mirth and the occassional tear from beginning to end. Like their version of Pirates of Penzance there was no drag, no high-campery or screeching falsettos, just fairies seducing peers in the house of lords. The costumes reflected the stripped back nature of the hall and all the cast protrayed great feeling with the smallest gestures and facial ticks. I want to watch it another 14 times, so I can spend time following each individual actor. They all had some wonderful moments

And the venue is just perfect, if you’ve never been to the oldest musical hall, then it’s worth it just for that. Go to http://www.wiltons.org.uk/ for more.

There’s nothing else to say, except go see it (you’ve got until 7th May, for a wonderous evening that will have you smiling inside for the next week.

I just wonder, given the gender imbalance in my musical theatre group, whether an all-female Gilbert and Sullivan show could deliver the goods.

Roaming with intent (aka Beccy)