BWW Review: IOLANTHE, Richmond Theatre
Iolanthe is arguably one of Gilbert and Sullivan's finest works. This frivolous and frothy opera was successfully revived by the ENO earlier this year, but now returns as something a little different. After surprising audiences with an original run at the Union Theatre and then a successful transfer to Wilton's Music Hall in 2011, Sasha Regan returns to her most critically acclaimed production: an all-male Iolanthe.
Regan's treatment gives new life to Gilbert and Sullivan in a similar way that Matthew Bourne made us look at Swan Lake with fresh eyes. It balances cleverly the novelty of an all-male cast by giving the audience a very refreshing and new perspective, but, unlike Bourne, is also as gloriously camp as possible. Crucially, it does not lose the sharp satire within the story, despite the fun and frippery.
The production opens to torches flashing in the dark as a party of naughty schoolboys adventure into the magical surroundings of an old theatre. Backstage, they discover a Narnia-like wardrobe and a dusty copy of Iolanthe. From then on, the production is acted out like an improvised school play.
It tells the story of Iolanthe; banished from the realm of fairies for marrying a mortal. Her son Strephon is in love with Phyllis, a ward of court. Unfortunately, the Lord Chancellor and the entire House of Lords also have their eyes on Phyllis. When Phyllis believes Strephon has been unfaithful, the worlds of the fairies and the peers collide.
The story is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most bizarre creations. With a premise as strange as this, it doesn't seem at all out of place to have an all-male cast.
The ensemble is clearly having a lot of fun with this production and it shows through their exuberance, especially through Mark Smith's excellent choreography. The range of voices is extensive, especially in the countertenor section, although it is often clear that the cast are trained in musical theatre, rather than classically, as strength and projection are occasionally problematic.
Richard Russell Edwards is nicely prim as the firm but fair Fairy Queen, supported to hilarious effect by Dominic Harbison and Lee Greenaway as kitsch sidekicks Celia and Leila.
Joe Henry's sensitive Phyllis demonstrates an impressive falsetto in his very straight portrayal of the character. It does, however, occasionally become a little grating. The rapport between Henry and Richard Carson's Strephon is tender and their love duet is a highlight.
With a simple piano accompaniment, there are reminders of the stripped down score used by companies such as Opera Up Close. Inevitably some of the music lacks depth and variety, but Richard Baker's musical direction does a surprisingly comprehensive job of expressing Sullivan's beautiful score.
Stewart Charlesworth's design is eccentric, with a flurry of baby pink satin, sparkling jewels and white knee high socks for the fairies and a collection of dressing gowns, random hats and old curtains for the peers.
The whole show is so much fun that any issues with the vocals are forgiven; it may not suit purists, but this is a deliciously camp and beautifully bonkers production.
Photo Credit: Harriet Buckingham