The works of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are jewels in the English theatrical treasury and I, generally, have scant patience (no pun intended) with 'reimaginings'. But this is a delightful, joyful production, quite 'small scale' classic in style and simply, but brilliantly, given an all male cast. This gives it an extraordinarily timeless feel: at once modern and ancient. It comes in a series of 'all male' G&S - sopranos everywhere should be getting genuinely worried. They work incredibly well.
To be marvelled at and applauded
The little production nestles comfortably beneath the vast arches of Hogwarts in the Palace Theatre. It is self-evidently crafted for smaller, less formal spaces but the vast stage fills with talent, energy, bubbling, infectious fun and the cleverest of choreographic staging, and one is left wondering why other productions bother spending all that money on scenery and set changes when a stonkingly good performance of a smart production of a glorious piece of musical theatre doesn't need it… but I digress.
On occasion, the cast is vocally overwhelmed by the sheer space and majesty of the The Palace. They sound very much of the 'actors who sing' school. Having said which, they generally sing very well, both in manly chest and ladylike head. Both vocally and physically, the ensemble, counter-intuitively, pack more punch in a bodice and crinoline than in a pirate's shirt and trews. Oh, Dry The Glistening Tear is utterly beautiful. The way the ensemble is choreographed through the two acts – as pirates, as ladies and as policemen – without a beat being missed, without a transition being fudged and without a single moment where the production seems, in any way, 'reduced', is to be marvelled at and applauded. The actual choreography is clever and fun and I think G&S would have liked it. I think they would have liked most of this. David McKenchnie's hipster Major General is played with an unusually light hand and it really, really works. He handles a patter song like Fred Astaire handles a tap routine. Oliver Savile's pirate king might be slightly more swish than swash but he has all the charm for the role. Frederic is a fairly ghastly role but Tom Senior actually manages to make of him a genuinely decent bloke, rather than a pathetic twit. It is quite the accomplishment.
Of the sisters, Lee Greenaway's Connie is a source of endless comic delight, particularly when she is not in focus, but in character in the background. I could watch the entire thing again, just for Connie. Having said that, the girls are all quite adorable in their own ways (and do watch them, because they do all have their own ways). The police offer up a great deal of fun and some sharp, smart choreography. Again, parts frequently overplayed are given a lighter touch here and are all the more enjoyable for it.
Alan Richardson's Mabel is, quite literally, breathtaking. I hold my breath each time he goes for yet another of Mabel's soaring cadenzas, never daring to believe he will manage it and yet, he (she) does. There are points throughout both acts where the voice is not entirely in control, but where it really matters, and, most of all, in those big Mabel moments, it is wonderful to hear. Richardson also makes a better than decent job of making Mabel a rather lovely girl.
I am less entranced by Ruth. Ruth is a complex part. One of G&S's many sad and frustrated contraltos. There is comedy in the role, but there is also tragedy. Ruth is not just a figure of fun.
But here she is pretty much a pantomime dame, complete with Frankie Howerdesque facial quirks. Playing Ruth 'big' like this unbalances the ensemble (otherwise seamless) and loses several beautifully crafted Gilbertian comedy moments in the campery. Really. The last thing this show needs is added camp.
There are just a few moments where Gilbertian gems are lost in over exuberant 'business'. You have to be so careful with Gilbert – he often puts beautiful comedy stings in the tails of lines and care needs to be taken not to cut them off. But I get the feel that this is partly due to the huge amount of fun and energy and happiness that there is onstage, simply bubbling over. That, in a year such as the one we have been having, is really not something to criticise. Because we, the audience all feel it too. And it is lovely.