Susan Elkin | 06 Oct 2023 22:42pm
Photo: Craig Fuller
Every G&S buff knows about Captain Shaw. He was Chief of Metropolitan Fire Brigade from 1861 to 1892. On the opening night of Iolanthe at the Savoy in 1882, he was sitting in the stalls – so he got a whole chorus of the Fairy Queen’s lovely second act aria Oh Foolish Fay. The strange thing is that it stayed in for ever which means that for the last 141 years this bit of obscurity has had to be explained to anyone interested.
Cal McCrystal’s version gives a uniformed Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle in a rather amazing helmet) providing a distinctly laboured prologue – a sort of warm up bit of stand-up” – to both halves. Goodness knows why anyone thought it would be a good idea to have him self-deprecatingly running down the show but, sadly, in places his remarks are spot on.
And that’s a pity because there is a lot to like about this show. The sets (Paul Brown) are magnificent from floral “Flower Fairy” type back-drops to the wall of the House of Lords and, best of all, the Lord Chamberlain’s flamboyant throne and the screen behind it. All the chorus singing (chorus director Martin Fitzpatrick) is splendid – every word clear and every note placed with precision. They are, moreover, beautifully directed (Cal McCrystal) to make imaginative use of the space. Most of the soloists are strong too, especially Catherine Wyn-Rogers as a grand, claret-voiced Fairy Queen making those bottom notes resonate like a vocal double bass to every corner of this huge venue. The entrance of the peers on a train is a theatrical tour do force too.
But – and I’m afraid there are plenty of “buts” – although the music is beautifully played by a full pit orchestra directed by Chris Hopkins, many of the tempi are too fast for solo numbers in a big space like the Coliseum. For example, although John Savourin (very seasoned at this) knows how to deliver the Chancellor’s Nightmare like almost no other, we lost some of the words as it accelerated. There were many people in the audience who were clearly new to G&S and were, perforce, laughing at the sur-titles rather than at what they could hear – the time delay is a giveaway.
I’m not keen on most of the additional material either – extra jokes and lines. WS Gilbert is very funny. If you deliver his lines (with a few cuts) as he wrote them, then they actually work. Some of the biggest laughs of the evening were, tellingly, at what Gilbert wrote rather than at anything added in. It’s matter of trusting your material.
Clearly no one in this production (revived from 2015) actually does trust the material. What on earth is the point of the pantomime cow? Or the flamingo? I realise that if you’ve paid for flight technology you want value for money but there’s far too much whizzing about overhead for the sake of it in this show.
And no director should ever upstage solo singers by putting gratuitous stage business behind them. I’ve seen this very basic error in amateur opera productions and winced. ENO really should know better than to have stage hands pushing a flock of sheep on stage, falling over them etc while Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne) and Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) are singing their love duet. That’s just an example. There is a great deal of this sort of thing which adds nothing to the show.
In short this is a production which is simply trying too hard. Relax, chaps, let the show do the work. You don’t have to contrive silly gags as if we were in a pantomime and, by the way, if you include three encores in the traditional G&S way they have to build up and get funnier. It’s no use doing more or less the same thing three times as you turgidly do in “If you go in, you’re sure to win”.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/iolanthe-3/