Prime Minister Clement Attlee once observed that ‘the House of Lords is like a glass of champagne that has stood for five days’. In Sasha Regan’s famed production of Iolanthe, it feels as though the cork has only just been popped on their bottled-up Lorships. Here they are bubbling with frothy eccentricity surrounded by a sparkling court of all-male fairies.
Sasha Regan has further adorned G&S’s crown as kings of comic opera with a gem of a show.
Not content with only the vintage stuff supplied by Gilbert and Sullivan, Regan has made a delightful cocktail that is true to the original yet has added ingredients that give a twist and heightened zest to this old favourite. The framing of the operetta provides a rationalisation for the all-male cast. A group of boys discover the libretto while mischievously exploring an old house. At the sound of people coming they disperse but the boy with the score hides in the closet. As he peruses its pages so they come to life. The costumes are at hand in the crates and the camp comedy commences.
The cast’s wardrobe alone marks out this production from any other. There are no delicately designed tutus here. Assorted bloomers, blouses and corsets suffice with lashings of lace and a flash of fur. Meanwhile their lordships are divested of the formal regalia worn in traditional productions. In a move that furthers G&S’s desire to ridicule and mock the peers of the realm they are seen in their hunting, shooting and fishing outfits, cavorting without dignity in their eccentric pastimes. The blend of crazy costumes and jolly japes speaks volumes.
The premier of Iolanthe in 1882 heralded the world’s first production to be lit by electric lights. Some might say the Lords made up for the lack of gas, but Kingsley Hall’s design needs no hot air to create the right mood for every scene. Accompanying all the shenanigans, musical director Richard Baker consummately keeps the show moving with his performance on the piano. It’s a downside to productions of this sort, however, that the richness of the music is denied a full orchestra. The same point can be made about the all-male voices. No matter that there are some wonderful alto, countertenor and falsetto renditions, the natural range of female voices deprives the show of the richness afforded by contraltos, mezzos and sopranos. Yet it’s probably a sacrifice worth making for the added fun found in this interpretation.
Christopher Finn harrowingly expounds the complexities and distress of fairy Iolanthe. Having committed a gross violation of fairy law by marrying a human she is banished from fairyland, avoiding death only on the understanding she has no more to do with her husband. After twenty five years the chorus of fairies plead to the Fairy Queen for her pardon. Richard Russell Edwards regally commands the chaos. Inevitably, further trouble looms. Enter Strephon, now an Arcadian Shepherd, who by virtue of his parentage is blessed with fairy attributes above the waist and mortal ones below. Richard Carson appropriately floats around in a dazed realm of pastoral unworldliness attempting to bring some sense to his duality. He has met his shepherdess love who knows nothing of his background and is also a ward in chancery. Joe Henry’s Phyllis is suitably coy, but he also manages to transform her rural naivety into comely cunning when dealing with the pervy peers. Heading that august assembly is the Lord Chancellor. Alastair Hill relishes the role and eloquently renders the moment of insomnia we’ve all been waiting for, ‘When you're lying awake with a dismal headache’. Barely recouped from that tour de force he is joined by the dynamically dithering double act of Adam Pettit and Michael Burgen, the lecherous Lords Tolloller and Mountararat, to remind us that ‘faint heart never won fair lady’. The plot continues with more revelations and awkward situations, not least when the Queen finds herself drawn by military muscle. As the only bass in the show, Duncan Sandiland’s proud portrayal of Private Willis resonates with humorous depth. Ultimately all is resolved and how could such a fantastic fairy tale end anything other than happily.
Ralph Vaughan Williams once asked whether Sullivan was ‘a jewel in the wrong setting’. Not so when paired with Gilbert. Iolanthe is testimony to their glorious partnership and Sasha Regan has further adorned G&S’s crown as kings of comic opera with a gem of a show.