Confession: until last night, I had never seen a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I can only say I have been missing out for a very long time on a grand tradition of camp and hilarity, if the current production of Iolanthe at the Richmond Theatre is anything to go by.
The all-male cast do not disappoint: most vocally striking is Joe Henry as Phyllis, the mortal love interest of the half-human half-fairy hero Strephon. Henry’s vocal range is absolutely remarkable, with a voice as clear as a bell and unstrained even in what seem to be wildly unreachable falsetto heights. All the leading cast are extremely talented performers: Alastair Hill as the Lord Chancellor is masterful and breezes through the incredibly difficult patter of his songs, seemingly without taking a single breath, and Adam Pettit as Lord Tolloller and Michael Burgen as Lord Mountarat form a glorious double-act of upper-class absurdity. Another notable lead would be Duncan Sandilands in a showman turn as Private Willis, who opens the second half of the show in wonderfully confident style with “When All Night Long a Chap Remains” and who has, it must be said, gorgeous arms. The “straight-man” characters necessarily fall a little flat when surrounded by more comedic turns: Iolanthe is out-shone by the Fairy Queen and her entourage, although her return from banishment is exquisitely staged.
Even more impressive, perhaps, are the leaps taken by the ensemble, who perform a deliciously sugared fairy chorus in one scene, only to return romping and gurning in fantastic style as rambunctious peers in the House of Lords. All the cast are fantastic physical performers: there is a particularly excellent sequence during “Spurn Not the Nobly Born” in which the ensemble creates typical upper-class leisure scenes, including a horseback hunt and a grouse shoot. I would like to throw in a particular shout out to the performer who so excellently embodies a bearskin rug: it is beautifully done. The choreography is truly excellent, with the notable inclusion of moments of British Sign Language: choreographer Mark Smith is the founder and artistic director of his own dance company Deaf Men Dancing, and the inclusion of this physical language into the choreography is seamless and thought-provoking. The joy in performance radiates out from all on stage, and as ever when an audience sees a cast having fun the effect is infectious: there was a great deal of laugher and cheering from the Richmond Theatre’s crowd, which some performers could do well to leave room for – there were a few lines lost to ploughing on through laughter.
The costuming is a treat, especially the fairies who are very funny in shades of pastel and cream underclothes without ever tripping anywhere near the crass or gratuitous. They avoid total absurdity or fancy dress cliché, and their wings are very innovatively and aesthetically created. This production is let down slightly by an overwrought lighting design that at times leaves the stage in a murky dinginess that strains the eye and leaves the performers under-lit. There are several lighting changes a scene, which seems an unnecessary and distracting extravagance. Also, it is slightly disappointing that the entire production is accompanied only by a piano rather than anything resembling an orchestra. It is a very well-played piano, but the effect is more of a rehearsal run than a full production, which is a shame as all other things being equal, this was a highly accomplished and very professional production indeed.