There is nothing subtle about Gilbert and Sullivan’s satirical attack on the House of Lords in Iolanthe, which premiered in both London and New York on 25th November 1882; the first play ever to open simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. Peers were popular subjects of ridicule even then and this revival of Cal McCrystal’s 2018 production by ENO at the Coliseum vehemently continues that tradition.

The singing is excellent throughout

The libretto resonated so well with those seeking to reform the upper chamber in the late nineteenth century that Gilbert had to ban the use of quotations from it in their campaign. Meanwhile, Sullivan had managed to couch the critique in jolly and entertaining songs, with the whole work being so light-hearted that even Prime Minister Gladstone praised its good taste. In the best tradition of the Savoy operas, of which Iolanthe was the first, this year’s version sees further updates with look-alikes Boris Johnson, who appears among the elite, accompanied by a Nadine Dorries banging on the doors of the Lords, desperate to be let in. Inevitably the Arts Council’s defunding of ENO isn't let off the hook.

Perhaps setting it in a world where fairy fantasy meets reality made its substance more acceptable. In the case of the Arcadian shepherd Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) the two come together in the top and bottom halves of his body. His mother, Iolanthe (Samantha Price), who as a Fairy has never aged, married a mortal, contrary to fairly law, for which the punishment was death. The benevolent Queen of the Fairies, (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) commuted Iolanthe’s sentence to a lifetime’s banishment as long as she left her husband, The Lord Chancellor (John Savournin), which she did without telling him she was pregnant, so he has no knowledge of his son. Meanwhile Strephon has fallen in love with the Arcadian shepherdess Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne). She knows nothing of his background, but as a Ward in Chancery Strephon needs the Chancellor’s permission to marry her, which he declines. The Fairies still miss Iolanthe and persuade the Queen to allow her return. Next, enter the peers of the realm, all of whom fall in love with Phylis and plead with the Chancellor to have her hand in marriage. Thus the mix of conflicting interests is set up and the rest of the operetta is devoted to unravelling the complexities of the situation so that all can live happily ever after.

The singing is excellent throughout. The orchestra under the baton of Chris Hopkins captures the varying moods and the big numbers are well-delivered by the highly experienced ensemble. Loudly let the trumpet bray and others are sung with gusto and inevitably Savournin relishes the Lord Chancellor’s songs and delivers When you're lying awake at break-neck speed. He is ably joined by Ruairi Bowen as Lord Tolloller and Ben McAteer as Lord Mountararat in the charming If you go in you're sure to win. Female soloists shine in all their numbers and Catherine Wyn-Rogers makes an impressive debut flying around with her fairy wings.

Those trying to deliver duets and other pieces do well not to be distracted by the excess of asinine antics taking place around them. The pastoral motif is milked in this production. A flock of sheep is assembled one at a time by stage-hands dressed in skin-tight black outfits, complete with full head masks, while we try to concentrate on a delightful rendition of Strephon and Phyllis’s love song, None Shall Part Us. While they remain undistracted, that is not an option for those of us in full view of the scene. Suggesting the pantomime season has arrived early a cow wanders amongst the peers, a unicorn is put to ingenious use, a horse drops his opinion of proceedings from his rear end, a flamingo is dismembered and ducks have their waddle.

The performance was given rapturous applause and clearly the antics were found to be appealing to the vast majority, but they will be divisive. In addition to the music and performances there’s and Lizzie Gee’s choreography to enjoy along with the vast sets by Paul Brown that bring the woodlands and the upper house to life.

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The Blurb

Iolanthe is a brilliantly funny fantasy.

It’s a topsy-turvy worldview, typical of Gilbert & Sullivan, in which life in the fairy world and Parliament is reversed.

Phyllis and Strephon (half man, half-fairy) wish to marry, but as Phyllis is a ward of court, she requires the Lord Chancellor’s permission. The Lord Chancellor, however, wants her for himself.

Sullivan’s ever-melodious musical score matches Gilbert’s libretto in satirising the vanities and egos of the peers of the realm. And, just for good measure, Iolanthe targets the celebrity culture of the day. There are thinly disguised portraits of the good and the great of late Victorian society. There are side swipes at Queen Victoria, John Brown (her personal servant and ‘close companion’), Lord Randolph Churchill (reformist Tory) and William Gladstone (the serving Liberal PM).

Cal McCrystal returns to direct this successful operetta, bringing his characteristic and joyfully chaotic physical comedy, irreverence and brilliant wordplay. Outstanding former ENO Harewood Artist, Samantha Price, leads a cast of ENO favourites – including baritone Marcus Farnsworth as Strephon.

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