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The Sorcerer (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Sorcerer

WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

Charles Court Opera Company

Wiltons Music Hall

 Star rating: 4

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I prefer my G&S, a century and a half after it was written, done chamber-style rather than by the big casts for which it was intended. Charles Court Opera Company – with its trademark cast of nine – has triumphed again.

The Sorcerer (1877) was the the first full length collaboration between Messrs Sullivan and Gilbert. And it has never achieved the  lasting popularity of, say, The Gondoliers or The Mikado. I’m a G&S buff but I’ve seen it only half a dozen times before, unlike their best known operas each of which I’ve seen 50 times or more. And it’s a shame because there are some lovely things in it.

The story – one of Gilbert’s whackier ones – gives us an English village in which a couple  about to marry decide that they want everyone in the village to be as happy as they are. So they bring in John Wellington Wells, the eponymous sorcerer, to administer a love potion (at a very English village tea party) which puts everyone to sleep. When they wake, hormones are astir … Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream spliced with John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. It’s all characteristically dotty and shot through with unlikely subplots.

And it works very nicely in this production (pared down to under two hours)  for several reasons. First, director John Savournin trusts his material. He allows Gilbert’s humour to do its stuff without messing about with it. His cast spit out the spoken lines with facial expressions, pregnant pauses and telling gestures  and it’s funnier than it’s ever been.

Second, even in the finest, professional, large scale production, G&S choruses often sound muddy. Here – usually delivered by just two or four singers –  they work like exquisite cut glass. You can hear every one of Gilbert’s hilarious words and, even better, Sullivan’s delicious harmonies. Music Director David Eaton, who accompanies from piano near front stage left, has done an outstanding job with these accomplished singers.

Then you bring in G&S royalty in the shape of Richard Suart to sing John Wellington Wells. He has done these patter roles with many different companies right back to the D’Oyly Carte so he knows exactly what to do. Not that he’s in any way samey. This Wells is a rather slimy and totally convincing, smooth-talking car salesman type in sheepskin jacket and feathered trilby hat: perfect for the 1960s ambience of this production. Suart delivers the best known song in the piece with verve and freshness although I did lose the occasional word from Row L.

Other glories in this enjoyable show include Meriel Cunningham as Constance – she is hilarious as a frumpy, naïve girl in love with the vicar (Mathew Kellet – fine work). She can communicate more about sexual yearning with one lift of her foot than a bitch on heat and she does the extremes – lots of loud crying – brilliantly. And it goes without saying that her singing is top notch too.

Robin Bailey sings beautifully as Alexis and Matthew Palmer is richly, ridiculously funny as Sir Marmaduke. Every performer here is hughly skilled vocally as well as knowing how to command the stage and light it up. It’s what makes a Charles Court Opera Company show work so well.

A word of praise, too for Lucy Fowler’s set and costumes. Her main set device is an open sided tea van decorated with “flower power” and lots of pink. And the costumes are lovely –  the dressing gown worn by Catrine Kirkman (great performance) as Lady Sangazure looked as if it was straight from Biba. Where can I buy one?

Author information
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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