By W.S Gilbert & A. Sullivan

 

This review appeared in the Western Mail on Friday 11th August 2006

Preview: Iolanthe     Mike Smith, Western Mail

 

Clever updating, biting political satire and a light touch have combined to make this production of this late Victorian operetta not only charming entertainment but also genuinely funny.

The first operetta written expressly for the Savoy Theatre, Iolanthe embodies so much that is typical of Gilbert and Sullivan, musically and lyrically. It combines a witty, but biting caricature of the British upper classes, political system and judiciary, all carried along in a flimsy story with strongly-written characters. No doubt the original libretto raised a few eyebrows, if not heckles, when performed in the then capital of the Empire, when the upper classes really did believe they were the bees-knees. Now the pompous Lord Chancellor - splendidly sung and acted in this Midsummer Festival of Music and Theatre production by Paul Buckle - and arrogant, absurd peers seem even more ridiculous. They balk at the idea of peerages being decided by competitive examination. If we have talented people in the Lords, our operatic Victorian peers ask, what would be the point of the House of Commons? Has that much changed since 1882?

What particularly had the audience in stitches was a version of When Britain Really Rules the Waves, renamed Now Britain Rules the World in Sleaze under Tony's Brave New-Labour Days. Just as witty was the band of the fairies sporting black Lycra and pastel coloured tutus, wings and parasols, all finished off with stomping boots, mobile phones, contemporary language and jokes.

We have Janet Holloway's wickedly-funny Queen of the Fairies explaining that banishment, the fate of Iolanthe for marrying a mortal, is like a lifelong ASBO. She enjoys a particularly saucy scene with Steve Davies as Private Willis who, as a bare-chested fireman, can't control his hose nozzle. Jo Herco is a feisty Phyllis, a ward in the Chancery, who wants to marry the dashing Strephon, played by Ralph Thomas, not realising he is Iolanthe's son. The plot revolves around their attempt to marry and the peers' attempts to win her hand in marriage.

Fairies do not age, so when Phyllis sees Strephon being all lovey-dovey with his mum (the impossibly young Iolanthe) she thinks he is two-timing her and goes off in a huff and agrees to marry a peer. Rather than pine away, our modern Phyllis opts to hit the booze and fags while the peers argue over who should be her husband. The two rivals for her hand, Nigel Holloway and Sion Owens, as the Lords Mountarat and Tolloller, discover they must duel to the death for her hand and decide against it.

Along the way we have the Lord Chancellor debating with himself whether he can marry his own ward and the fairies falling for the charms of mortal men, the peers. The outcome is that Iolanthe reveals to the Lord Chancellor that she is the wife he thought was long dead and that Strephon is their son. Strephon reveals to Phyllis "I'm half a fairy" (the bottom half in case, like Phyllis, you were wondering), which is why his mum looks so young. And the fairies all secretly marry the peers. The Lord Chancellor uses his legal skills to find a form of words so that all the fairies do not have to die - the fate of fairies who marry mortals and even the Queen of the Fairies gets her man, Private Willis. This enables the ensemble to declare in unison as the drama comes to a close "Everyone is now a fairy".

The operetta is indeed comical and a well-observed political satire with the familiar patter-songs and military strains, here given to peers rather than soldiers or policemen. But Gilbert and Sullivan also give us heart-on-your-sleeve emotion and delightful songs, such as None Shall Part Us, the soprano and baritone duet between Phyllis and Strephon, and the delicate aria where Iolanthe, nicely sung by Lorna Welch, reveals her identity to the Lord Chancellor.

The setting worked well for the smooth unfolding of the plot. The production is staged until tonight.

 

NODA Review by Frank Wooles

There were fairies at the bottom of Duffryn Gardens in the Vale of Glamorgan, a perfect alfresco setting for the delights of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe. Strephon's career change from shepherd to Shakespearean actor was an idea which opened up the role to many opportunities which were not missed by Ralph Thomas in a fine, beautifully sung performance in his wooing of Phyllis, played with worldly-wise allure by Jo Herco, a Ward of Chancery and diary secretary to the Lord Chancellor. The blimpish, aristocratic Lord Chancellor of Paul Buckle was not fazed in the least by the matrimonial capers of the peers and fairies as background to his crisply delivered nightmare ordeal number and, bringing a touch of sanity to the evening, Lorna Welch was a delightfully poised and tranquil banished fairy, Iolanthe. Nigel Holloway and Sion Owens were impressive and complimentary as romantic rivals, the noble Lords Moutararat and Tolloller and, as a many of many parts, Steve Davies brought a new dimension to the role of a multi tasked Private Willis. And who was the peer who could actually see a fairy? This well balanced company were a joy to watch and hear, radiating energy and enthusiasm in Janet Holloway's imaginative and precise production which so well used the elegant open-air venue, enhanced by the effective and atmospheric lighting by Catherine Carey. As well as directing, Janet superbly played and sang an imperious Queen of the Fairies. Colourful and some quite zany costumes added to the fun and the evening was well backed by a light combo under Assistant Musical Director, Nicola Rose. A visit to Duffryn Gardens is always a special occasion and this was a delicious evening of midsummer madness.

 

Originally published Spring 2007

 

 

Phyllis and her Peers

 

"What particularly had the audience in stitches was a version of When Britain Really Rules the Waves, renamed Now Britain Rules the World in Sleaze under Tony's Brave New-Labour Days. Just as witty was the band of the fairies sporting black Lycra and pastel coloured tutus, wings and parasols, all finished off with stomping boots, mobile phones, contemporary language and jokes."

Western Mail

 

"This well balanced company were a joy to watch and hear, radiating energy and enthusiasm in Janet Holloway's imaginative and precise production which so well used the elegant open-air venue"

 

NODA