Following the success of the Union Theatre’s all-male production of Pirates of Penzance last year, Wilton’s Music Hall now plays host to the same company’s Iolanthe.
The story of Gilbert and Sullivan’s original remains unchanged – a fantastical, satirical romance between the members of the House of Lords and some fairies – but in an inspired move, Sasha Regan’s production transfers the setting to an all-boys public school. Making this an after-hours entertainment put on for their own amusement by a bunch of schoolboys who creep onto the stage by torchlight lends the show a ramshackle charm and energy – these players are, after all, really playing – and also gives it an air of misbehaviour and transgression that adds further layers both to the forbidden love at the story’s heart, and to its all-male staging.
From the opening number, this is a fast-paced and funny production with a talented and engaging cast. No one has a stand out voice but all parts are ably sung – praise goes especially to the ‘female’ vocals which potentially could be a stumbling block, but aren’t – and the cast carry the notoriously tricky lyrics with character and verve. (Credit here must go to musical supervisor Michael England and musical director Chris Mundy). The humour is often broad, with the production certainly not above exploiting the comic potential of a bunch of men prancing around declaring themselves fairies, but it also feels oddly topical. Jokes about politicians being pompous and stupid never date, and the references to Conservatives and Liberals add plenty of amusement – the night’s biggest laugh comes when Strephon announces that, as he is in charge of both political parties, he should be happy, but is actually miserable.
None of this comedy comes at the expense of the play’s heart, and much of this is due to the power of the central performances. In a universally strong cast, the leads really do stand out. As Iolanthe, Christopher Finn brings genuine pathos to the role of a woman willing to die not once but twice for love, and you actually care about her sacrifice. Alan Richardson as Phyliss has both charm and great comic timing, and is so appealing you can quite believe that everyone is so enthralled. As Strephon, Louis Maskell is a convincing romantic suitor but with a pleasing amount of backbone – his subtle smugness as the fairies come to his aid is a joy to watch, as is his final reconciliation with his love. Importantly, the pair also have great chemistry. I must admit to being slightly frustrated by their teasingly ‘almost kissing but never quite’ routine, taking it to be a ‘let’s not scare the horses’ concession to a mainstream audience, but this turns out to be a smart directorial decision, meaning that the play’s one kiss, when it comes, has real power and dramatic impact, and feels very much like the breaking of rules it represents.
The rest of the roles are played squarely for comic affect, and no worse for that. Shaun McCourt as Chancellor is all gangly self-importance but hiding a tragic secret – his ode to insomnia “Love, unrequited…” is a great moment. Alex Weatherhill brings comic flair to the role of Fairy Queen, channelling that great English tradition of a stout man playing a bossy woman, and Private Willis (Raymond Tait) is deliciously deadpan. Other standouts include Luke Fredericks as Lord Mountararat – “When Britain really ruled the waves” is a highlight, while his duet with an equally impressive Lord Tolloller (Matthew James Willis) hilariously emphasises the potentially homoerotic nature of the song to make it the gayest thing in the show, so much so it seems rather a shame they are married off to other people in the end.
The production is fantastically served by both costume and choreography, by Stewart Charlesworth and Mark Smith respectively. The choreography is tremendously physical but never overly showy (although the decision to add signing to the fairies’ movements can be distracting), while the costumes reinforce the duality of the staging. Pulling together a ragtag collection of items that somehow both completely call to mind an impromptu show (fairies’ wings made from tennis nets, dressing gowns for Lords’ robes), they still manage to be oddly evocative of what they represent – the fairies are strangely beautiful and otherworldly, despite being played for laughs. The set, too, is effective: a deserted school stage that grounds but never ties down the action. Indeed, the performers make full use of the theatre, stalking the aisles and balconies, cowering behind pillars and singing to the audience, meaning we never feel less than part of the show.
Overall, then, another triumph: managing to present Gilbert & Sullivan in a way that both appeals to the traditionalists (what, after all, has a longer tradition in theatre than that of men dressing up as women?) but feels utterly modern and fresh.