BWW Review: PATIENCE, Hackney Empire
"What a very singularly deep young man that deep young man must be!" You don't have to look very far in selfie-taking 2017 for an equivalent to the narcissism and aestheticism that are so thoroughly sent up in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1881 Patience. So perhaps it's best that director Liam Steel has left all that to look after itself, and instead of a topical satire has produced an unapologetic period romp, with just a few too many smutty moments for complete comfort.
Most of the show is winningly PG, from Florence de Mare's Arcadian idyll of a set, which comes by way of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, and her costumes, with their flower-strewn headpieces, stockings and foulards, to the exuberant camp of Steel's own choreography. It's enchanting - for about half an hour - and then when the plot's in-built repetition begins it all starts to creak and beg for a slightly swifter, more brutal or energised approach.
Steel's response to this is to amp up the sex, which would be fine elsewhere, but in the context of such a family show feels more than a little uncomfortable, especially when so many of the gags merely enact the homosexual elements so barely latent in the material. It's the visual equivalent of explaining the punchline - at best redundant and at worst gauche.
But despite this, and some rather ragged moments on opening night, there's a joy here that is so disastrously absent from ENO's current Pirates of Penzance. The chorus of lovesick maidens droop and fawn with gleeful intensity, led dually by Gaynor Keeble's puppyish Lady Angela and Valerie Reed's magnificent Lady Jane (her "Silvered is the Raven Hair" singularly and gloriously bathetic), while rival aesthetics Bunthorne (Bradley Travis) and Grosvenor (Ross Ramgobin) mince and pout with relish.
It helps that, musically, this is one of Sullivan's finer scores. From the lovely madrigal-duet "Prithee Pretty Maiden" to Patience's skittish opener "I Cannot Tell What This Love May Be" and his response to Gilbert's surpassingly brilliant text for the Bunthorne-Grosvenor duet "When I Go Out of Door", it's a hotchpotch of sounds and styles that adds up to an ear-catchingly attractive show. Sensitively conducted here by Timothy Burke, who opts for beauty over crude comedy every time, it comes up bright and beautifully polished.
Vocally, things are a bit more mixed. The Dragoon Guards are strong, but it would be lovely if the ladies' chorus sang together more reliably, while in solo roles the situations are reversed: brilliant ladies partnered by slightly more uncertain gentlemen, including Andrew Slater's rather nervy Colonel.
But in Lauren Zolezzi's Patience Steel has a leading lady more than capable of holding it all together. Prim and pert, she dispatches Sullivan's arias with throwaway efficiency, sparkling in the ensembles, and offer quite the object lesson in female empowerment on this International Women's Day opening night.
This is a show that will settle through the long touring run, so maybe give it a week before sampling ETO's first foray into Gilbert and Sullivan.
Picture Credit: Richard Hubert Smith