There was a more than usual buzz in the air at the Coliseum in anticipation of ENO’s latest foray into the world of Gilbert & Sullivan with The Yeoman of the Guard. It had nothing to do with the operetta but rather the raging debate about Arts Council England’s decision to withdraw the venue's entire funding of £12.6 million combined with the prospect of a move to Manchester if it would like to see any of it restored. Regular patrons along with casual attendees were incensed. A lady in black took to the stage to give a brief outline of the situation and was met with rapturous applause in defence of the company and the fight for its future, combined with hissing and booing worthy of the approaching pantomime season every time the Arts Council’s name or their actions were mentioned. Given the show we were all about to see, sending its members to the Tower would likely have met with massive approval.
A production to be admired
Conductor Chris Hopkins followed the gloomy news with a controlled, hearty and melancholic rendition of Sulivan’s overture. The piece is generally regarded as his most ambitious, in which he abandons running the gamut of tunes from the operetta in favour of an opening in sonata form with an augmented orchestra and just the slightest hint of what is to come. Neither is there a big opening chorus number. Instead, Phoebe (Heather Lowe) sets the tone for this tale of the ups and downs of romance and the frustrations encountered in the pursuit of love as she ‘sits and sighs’ at her spinning wheel, sweetly singing When maiden loves.
Anthony Ward's design supports the solemn mood, combined with emotive lighting from Oliver Fenwick. There is that a pervading darkness and inspired use of the Tower of London and its backdrop Bridge. In Act 2 the White Tower stands majestically on the revolve, turning to create new scenes and movement opportunities. Its presence is in stark contrast to the more minimalist aspects of the set using chain curtains to denote the prison and an air of people restricted by circumstances. The recent displays of pageantry at Her Majesty's funeral make the splendid costumes of the Yeoman seem very familiar and they are all immaculately presented and kept in order by the Lieutenant of the Tower. Steven Page’s rich baritone guarantees his assertive and controlling presence. Updated to the 1950s, which doesn’t sit well with some of the story, a newsreel projection sets the scene and the period; somewhat gimmicky yet also amusing. The ladies of the chorus also don uniforms of post-war WRVS style and, at this performance, they were led by the powerful, no-nonsense Gaynor Keeble as Dame Carruthers.
Anthony Gregory does a splendid job as Colonel Fairfax, convincing throughout and a joy to hear. The same goes for Neal Davies as Sergeant Meryll, Alexandra Oomens as Elsie and Isabelle Peters as Kate. John Molloy clearly relishes the evil and mischievousness inherent in Shadbolt, which brings us to Richard Cabe as Jack Point, the street entertainer. As with Les Dennis in HMS Pinafore, we have a well-known figure from outside the operatic world brought in as an attraction. Cabe gets off to a shaky start with a weak, half-spoke rendition of what should be the delightful I have a song to sing O. His voice warms up as the show progresses but the exuberance of his performance distorts the balance of the production, making it overly about him.
This is still a production to be admired and one that under the direction of Jo Davies confirms the strength and value of ENO, the quality of its soloists and the strength of its chorus and production team. It’s an asset that should not be lost to London.