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The Yeomen of the Guard (Susan Elkin reviews)

Venue: London Coliseum. St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES

Credits: By Gilbert & Sullivan. Presented by the ENO

The Yeomen of the Guard

3 stars

Photo by Tristram Kenton

There’s much to admire in this gently updated revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s darkest opera. We’re in 1953 and it works rather well although I would rather not have filmed news footage – clever as the concept  is – obliterating the sound of Sullivan’s finest overture being beautifully played by a full sized pit orchestra under Chris Hopkins’ baton.

It’s a grandiloquent production with a splendid ensemble of fifty people directed to use every inch of ENO’s huge playing space. We first see the titular Yeomen in their wardroom in their vests with cups of tea gradually singing their way into their familiar, elaborate uniforms – and that’s one of this show’s many good ideas. The use of the revolve is another – especially for the construction of a scaffold at the end of Act 1. The concept of the female chorus as Women’s Royal Army Corps with Dame Carruthers (Susan Bickley – good) as their commanding officer fits the bill perfectly. And the trio of tap dancing guardsmen in their busbies are an unexpected, joyfully absurd delight. Anthony Ward’s sets make terrific use of the space, ultimately including a miniature tower on the revolve with provides an encircling shelf on which some scenes are staged at a slightly higher level.

I doubt that Sardines readers need an account of the plot but as a reminder:  this is a story about a man condemned to death in the Tower of London. A last minute rescue leads to disguise, much obfuscation and, ultimately, three pretty iffy marriages and one broken heart. And along the way much of the music is Sullivan at his finest. The Act 1 finale – beautifully staged here with that sonorous bell chiming from the pit working up to the climactic point when they discover that the cell is empty – is as good as anything written by “serious” opera composers such as Verdi.

Anthony Gregory’s Fairfax (not the most likeable of characters, it has to be said) is one of the finest performances in this show. His tenor voice has a golden mellifluousness to it especially in “Free from his fetters grim” in Act 2. I liked John Molloy’s head jailer Shadbolt too. He’s a tall, lithe  man and a  nippy dancer which, along with his rich bass voice, makes the character more human and less grotesque than sometimes.

Heather Lowe, a pleasing soprano, packs Phoebe, a young woman whose father works in the Tower, with pertness and passion. She does “Were I thy bride” for example with lots of musical humour. And Alexander Oomens sings magnificently as the hapless Elsie Maynard – manipulated by almost every man in the show.

And yet … the star of The Yeomen of the Guard should be Jack Point the travelling jester who loses his sweetheart to Fairfax. Richard McCabe is an excellent, justifiably famous actor but he’s woefully miscast here. The first problem is that he isn’t a singer and that sticks out tellingly if you put him on stage with a whole cast of trained opera singers. Although it’s fun to see him playing the accordion for his first number “I have a song to sing O” he is often out of tune. He struggles to make some of the sung diction clear and in duets and quartets his voice tends to dip when others are singing with him. Moreover he often drags the tempo.  Even his mincing about posturing as a weary 1950s comedian doesn’t quite cut the mustard. He does the last scene quite well though – drunk, staggering with braces hanging down. It’s another of the show’s good ideas.

The other big problem with this show is pace. It moves ploddingly slowly. Two hours and 40 minutes (including interval) is a long haul by G&S standards. Some music which is usually cut has been restored. Instead of “Rapture, rapture” we get “My eyes are fully open” from Ruddigore which is a witty and effective idea although “this particularly rapid, unintelligible patter” is neither rapid nor unintelligible in this version.  In fact it’s rather pedestrian and that goes for other moments in the show too.  Perhaps it’s giving this relatively serious piece the “grand opera” treatment which Sullivan always aspired to but I think, dramatically, it needs to move faster than it does in this version.

First published by Sardines:


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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