10 April 2012

The Grand Duke - Finborough Theatre, Monday 9th April 2012


Ernest Dummkopf's theatrical company, who are to open in Troilus and Cressida that night, are ready to celebrate the wedding of the troupe's leading comedian Ludwig to Lisa, a soubrette of the company. However, the marriage cannot take place yet as there are no parsons available in the city, as all clerics have been summoned to the palace by the Grand Duke to discuss his own forthcoming marriage. This is one more cause for resenting the Grand Duke, and in fact all of the company are members of a plot to blow him up and place a new man on the throne. The secret sign by which members of the conspiracy recognise each other is to eat a sausage roll — a food of which they are by now all heartily sick.
It is clear that Ernest will win the election which is to follow the coup and become Duke, which troubles Julia Jellicoe, the English comedienne. As leading lady of the company, she is bound by contract to play the leading female role in any production. If Ernest, the manager, becomes the Grand Duke, she will have to be the Grand Duchess. This is a repugnant prospect to her (though a delightful one to Ernest), but she declares that she will play the part in a professional manner.
Meanwhile, Ludwig has met a man who returned his secret salute by eating three sausage rolls. Ludwig took him as a member of the conspiracy and told him all the details: only then did he realise that he had just revealed the entire plot to the Grand Duke's private detective. The company are aghast, believing they are doomed once the Grand Duke learns of the plot. The notary, Dr. Tannhäuser, offers a solution. He explains that a century ago the Grand Duke of the time, concerned about the loss of life in duelling, had created the “statutory duel ”: the duellers draw cards, and the one who draws the lower card loses. He becomes legally dead, and the winner takes over his position: his property, responsibilities and debts. The law regulating statutory duels, like all laws of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, lasts for one hundred years unless revived, and it is to lapse tomorrow.

Tannhäuser counsels Ernest and Ludwig to fight a statutory duel; immediately: the loser will be legally dead, and the survivor can go to the Duke and confess the whole plot. As informer he will be spared, while the other party will be "dead” and so beyond retribution. The next day, the loser will come to life when the law lapses, but since death expunges crime, his character will be unstained. Ernest and Ludwig promptly "fight" a statutory duel. Ernest draws a king, but Ludwig draws an Ace and wins.

Grand Duke Rudolph appears, heralded by his corps of chamberlains, and he instructs them in the arrangements for his wedding the next day to the miserly Baroness von Krakenfeldt, who is disconcerted that Rudolph insists on courting her here, in the market square, but he explains that he has made a law compelling couples to do any courting here in the square, so as to increase the value of his properties around the square. She is also upset by a newspaper article which says that Rudolph was betrothed in infancy to the Princess of Monte Carlo, but he explains that it's "practically off." The betrothal lapses when the Princess reaches the age of twenty-one, which will also happen tomorrow; but her father, the Prince, dares not venture out of his house for fear of being arrested by his creditors.

Rudolph finds out about the plot and fears the plot will be successful. Ludwig enters, intent on denouncing the plot to him. Before he can do so, Rudolph declares that he would give anything to avoid being blown up the next day, and Ludwig sees a way out. He patriotically volunteers to challenge Rudolph to a statutory duel. The two men will hide cards up their sleeves, guaranteeing victory to Ludwig. When the plot unfolds, Ludwig will be its victim. The next day, when the Act authorizing statutory duels expires, Rudolph can come back to life unharmed. Although Rudolph is sceptical, he accepts Ludwig's proposal. They stage a mock quarrel and conduct the rigged statutory duel as planned: Rudolph's King is beaten by Ludwig's Ace. Rudolph's subjects berate him with scorn, and he leaves, threatening revenge. Ludwig, now the Grand Duke, promptly extends the Act for another hundred years, thus ensuring that neither Rudolph nor Ernest can come back to life.

Suddenly Julia Jellicoe appears, and once again asserts that, as leading lady, she must take the leading role of the Grand Duchess. Lisa leaves in tears. Julia points out that if they are to occupy a Ducal court, they need to be dressed more impressively than their everyday clothes will allow. Ludwig recalls that they have a complete set of brand-new costumes for Troilus and Cressida, which they can use.

In a room in the Duke's palace, the new court parade in classical costume. Left alone, Ludwig and Julia fail to agree on how her role is to be played. Baroness von Krakenfeldt arrives for her wedding, and is startled at finding Rudolph has been replaced by Ludwig. But once she discovers that Ludwig has beaten Rudolph in a statutory duel, she points out that he must take on Rudolph's responsibilities — including his betrothal to her. So despite being already married to Julia, Ludwig goes off with the Baroness to get married.

Ernest, though legally dead, is desperate for news, and ventures in to try and find out what is going on. He sees the wedding procession in the distance, and assumes that Ludwig is marrying Lisa; but it cannot be so, for Lisa appears. She will not stop, but runs from him as from a ghost. He then supposes that Ludwig must be marrying his Julia — but she too appears. Though affecting to be also frightened of the "ghost", she stays and tells him what Ludwig has done.

The Prince of Monte Carlo arrives with his daughter the Princess and a retinue of supernumeraries — out-of-work actors hired from the Theatre Monaco to play the part of nobles. He has reversed his fortunes by inventing a game called roulette. The Princess is shocked when she discovers that Ludwig already has three Grand Duchesses. He tells her that he defeated Rudolph in a statutory duel, and assumed all of the former Grand Duke's responsibilities. She points out that her claim predates the Baroness von Krakenfeldt's, and Ludwig is therefore obliged to marry her.

The Notary reveals that the Act regulating statutory duels specifically lays down that the ace shall count as lowest, so Ludwig did not win, was never Grand Duke, and cannot have revived the act. Within seconds, the Act expires, returning Ludwig to the living. All dance off to get married — Rudolph and the Princess; Ernest and Julia; the Baroness and the Prince of Monte Carlo; and Ludwig and Lisa.
Bertha: Tammy Davies
Elsa: Ciara O’Connor
Franzel: Matthew James Willis } also sang chorus
Rudi: Stiofan O’Doherty
Otto: Mark Lawson
Ernest Dumkopf, a theatrical manager: Phillip Lee
Ludwig, his leading comedian: Stefan Bednarczyk
Lisa, Ernest’s soubrette: Victoria Byron
Julia Jellicoe, his leading lady: Charlotte Page
Dr. Tannhauser, a notary: Bruce Graham (at this performance, played by Martin Milnes)
Rudolph, the Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbfennig: Richard Suart
Baroness von Krakenfeldt: Sylvia Clark
The Prince of Monte Carlo: Martin Lamb (at this performance, played by Bruce Graham)
The Princess of Monte Carlo: Jane Quinn

Creative Team:
Libretto: W S Gilbert
Music: Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director: Martin Milnes
Musical Director: John Owen Edwards
Designer: David Shields

Its been admittedly quiet here at RTR Towers theatre-trip wise over the last month for various reasons. So apologies for that. But, dear Readers, today will be a bonus day because there will be not one but TWO reviews, it having been decided that we would be spending the entirety of Bank Holiday Monday at the theatre rather than staying at home watching it rain and bickering gently. So in the early, damp afternoon it was off to Earl’s Court to the Finborough Theatre to catch sight of a very, very rare bird indeed – a staged performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s last joint work, one which fell with a resounding flop in 1896 and hasn’t been seen since. And, so the purists would say, not without good reason. But more of that anon.

Now, I’m not saying that the Finborough is small, but it seats 50 at the most and then the audience have to be very, very friendly with each other. In fact, the performing area is smaller than most living rooms and if you arrive late and end up sitting in the front row then it might be a good idea to grab yourself a score and sing along with the chorus because most of the action will be taking place in your lap. Him Indoors had been wondering “where they are going to put the orchestra” en route and it turned out that there was no orchestra for the simple reason that a flute or violin bow would have constituted serious Health and Safety issues for rows A – C. If there had been a double bass it would have hidden 2/3 of the stage and the only way they would have been able to fit a drum in would be to set it up in the toilet downstairs and rig up an intercom. Instead, there were two keyboards crammed onto the side of the stage and even then each bore the marks where 2 octaves had had to be sawn off to get them to fit. During the interval, a chap in the row in front of us opened up a copy of The Telegraph and damned near took my eye out. This place is SMALL, folks. But sometimes very good things come in very small packages – like that tiny box marked “Cartier” that I keep angling for in the run up to Christmas and never get. So it was astonishing that for some considerable time there were 19 singers crowded onto the tiny stage and it was a mark of the director’s expertise that neither of the keyboards went flying during an energetic number, and neither was there any obvious sign of people treading on someone else’s toes or the hem of their costume. This production popped out of a tiny box and filled the air with glitter and streamers and it didn’t matter to either the cast or the audience. For all the notice that the cast took of their cramped performing conditions they could have been appearing on Salisbury Plain. Fortunately the audience didn’t care either, because apart from one very obviously unimpressed woman next to me (who, I gathered from something she snapped to her gentleman companion in the interval) had been “dragged along to watch your bloody G&S”, everyone was having as good a time as those on stage.

Mind you, this was a place for serious geekery. The Grand Duke was more or less consigned to the dustbin of musical theatre history after its first production and hasn’t really been seen since apart from the odd concert performance (and one very odd concert performance but enough said about Grim’s Dyke) and very rare productions mounted by incredibly brave amateur companies willing to take an artistic and financial gamble on the show (in all my years of theatre-going, I’ve only ever seen one of these). Because The Mikado it ain’t. It has a terribly unwieldy plot, as those of you who struggled through the synopsis above will have gathered. It has reams and reams of desperately unfunny dialogue of the kind which makes me think Gilbert had really, by this stage, given up or got played out or even both. It has lots and lots of principal parts, some of which are so small that the person playing them can arrive at the theatre half an hour after curtain up on the second act and still have time to don their costume, plaster on some slap, flick through this week’s Stage, pick their nose thoroughly, have a good rummage in everyone else’s bag and still have time to stand in the wings and wait for their en trance. Others are on stage at the beginning and then don’t appear again for hours at a time. The music has the occasional flash of brilliance but you wouldn’t be able to sing any of the solos or duets in a concert without very lengthy explanation of their context first. The first act is almost completely devoid of chorus save for the very beginning and end. The title character is unsympathetic to say the very least. And yet….. and yet….somehow this production made it work. And made it funny and diverting. It was almost as if, on this minute scale, the wider faults of the piece were completely pushed out of the frame.

Of course, it helps to have a top notch cast. For me, Charlotte Page not only walked away with the entire show but bundled it up, tucked it under her arm and took it home with her. For reasons that only a true G&S geek would understand, Charlotte played the role of Julia with a practically faultless Cherman excent, not only in her dialogue but in her singing as well. Now that takes some doing, as does showing an acting range that encompasses everything from Maria von Trapp to Lady MacBeth. Stefan Bednarczyk sparkled gently as Ludwig (even though every time I looked at him I couldn’t get past his resemblance to Christopher Plummer). Richard Suart chewed every available piece of scenery in his inimitable style – but I question why he was dressed in a Chelsea Pensioner’s uniform? Sylvia Clark was in fine form throughout and managed to make a first-rate comic character from one of Gilbert’s most unappealing “old bag” parts. Kudos points in buckets to Martin Milne who took over the large role of Dr. Tannhauser for this performance due to the unavailability of Martin Lamb, and to Bruce Graham who moved sideways from this role with apparent ease into the small but pivotal role of the Prince of Monte Carlo with no prior rehearsal. Respect, guys, respect.

“Chorus” (I use quote marks because the chorus parts were sung by five hard working people who all had small named roles) were bright and funny and engaging throughout. Devotees of the all-male Gilbert and Sullivan company who perform at the Union and occasionally Wilton’s Music Hall will be delighted to see several members in tiny supporting roles.

I did think that some of the lyrics needed changing: there will always be those idiots who laugh when they suddenly hear the word "lesbian" in a comic opera, even when in this particular context it has its original meaning of "from the island of Lesbos".  Mind you, even after more than 100 years, some of it is still spot on: what better operetta could there be for the end of the "pastry-gate" scandal than one which features sausage rolls so prominently?

There will be but two (two!) performances of this piece left (next Sunday and Monday) by the time this review is posted, and I believe that both are sold out. However, the run has already been extended once by popular demand so who knows, miracles may happen and it might well be extended again. It certainly deserves it.

Review of the show we saw in the evening will appear very shortly.

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