BWW Review: IOLANTHE, London Coliseum
Originally intended as a stinging satire on Victorian politics and the House of Lords in particular, Gilbert and Sullivan's supremely silly comic opera Iolanthe is in fine form as it returns to the Coliseum. The story is of the eponymous fairy Iolanthe, banished from fairyland as she married a mortal. Her son Strephon wants to marry Phyllis, but all the members of the House of Peers wants to marry Phyllis as well. When Phyllis suspects Strephon of being unfaithful, she sets off a huge confrontation between the fairies and the peers.
Director Cal McCrystal, best known for his work on One Man, Two Guvnors, would seem to be an inspired choice for the slapstick satire of the story. There are some supremely funny moments; when the Lord Chancellor's Clerk, played with brilliant gormlessness by Richard Leeming, is bounced around the stage as others perform a dance is hilarious.
Some of the visual gags work and some are laboured; jokes such as a peer relieving himself by a sentry box seem forced rather than light. Some will love this irreverence, but I suspect many will find it simply tasteless. This outpouring of humour occasionally undermines the shining visual look of the production and some very good performances. Visually, there is often so much going on that is hard to concentrate on the opera itself. The beautiful love duet between Strephon and Phyllis is almost completely missed by the distraction of all the activity behind them.
The production is a golden opportunity for sharp satire, as it still has much to suggest about today's politics, but a direct commentary on contemporary politics seems to have been avoided. There was a collective sigh of relief that there was no mention of Brexit, but the peers looking like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, with an abundance of blond bouffant hair, was left just as a visual suggestion. The show uses a huge amount of silliness, but the use of gags such as a pantomime cow, unicorn and the baring of the Chancellor's bottom, risks pushing the production too much towards the infantile.
Conductor Timothy Henty exposes all the wit and bubbly exuberance of the score, particularly with the brilliant Yvonne Howard and the very funny Andrew Shore as the Queen of the Fairies and Lord Chancellor. Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne are excellent as the dainty Arcadian Strephon and Phyllis. Samantha Price is also wonderful in the title role, taking full advantage of her Wagnerian solo with great control and emotion. The ENO chorus are clearly having a ball with this production and it shows in their bright and comedic contributions.
Designer Paul Brown, who sadly died in November, has created a beautifully over the top set that is joyful and extravagant with a riot of colour, froth and texture. His luscious costumes create a bright and delightful Victorian look, which is a visual feast. The fairies in particular look ravishing. The special effects are also charming, particularly the fairies who fly across the stage and suddenly appear through trapdoors.
This could be another Gilbert and Sullivan hit for the ENO: some of the busyness and more crass elements could be toned down without losing any of the exuberance, wit and joy. A frothy and frivolous evening of fun.
Photo Credit: Clive Barda