Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 23 February 2012

Patience

Union Theatre ⋄ 15 February – 10 March 2012

Beautiful things.

Sam Smith

This is the fifth all-male Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that the Union Theatre has presented since 2007.  The two most recent, The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe have both gone on to have lives beyond the tiny Southwark theatre, but Patience is, on the surface at least, a more challenging choice.

While most Gilbert and Sullivan operettas focus upon social hierarchies that we can still relate to surprisingly well, Patience revolves around the Aesthetic movement of the 19th century, as epitomised by Oscar Wilde and articulated by Walter Pater (the movement was also the subject of the V&A’s recent Cult of Beauty exhibition). The movement had existed for two decades when Patience premiered in 1881, and the operetta affectionately lampoons it.

Reginald Bunthorne only pretends to be an aesthete because he craves admiration, while Archibald Grosvenor finds being perfection personified something of a strain as he is constantly accosted by swooning maidens. Between these two comes the milkmaid, Patience, who sees love as a duty, and feels forced to reject any man who is perfect, precisely because her love for him could never be selfless.

Sasha Regan’s simple staging creates a suitably rustic atmosphere, with a tree made of reeds and rags and swirling grasses painted on the theatre’s brick walls. Diction is strong throughout, allowing the audience to follow every twist of the plot and to revel in W. S. Gilbert’s unique humour; the musical performances are also superb. Some years back, when the company staged The Mikado, the vocal performances of the principal ‘ladies’ were strong, but the chorus struggled to match their standard. Now, it feels as if any one of the ensemble is capable of playing a principal part, and none of the voices sounds at all strained.

These all-male productions have maintained their freshness because they have not simply followed a template and each one has displayed different strengths. With The Pirates of Penzance in 2009, the existence of three choruses made for an exciting staging. With Iolanthe in 2010 there was the added humour of a cast of men playing delicate fairies. But the camp has been toned down a notch for this production and as a result it feels the most tightly controlled yet.

Of a superb cast, Edward Charles Bernstone stands out in the role of Patience.  His facial expressions are priceless; his glances convey innocence, naivety – or outright rapture. He is particularly amusing in his momentary displays of irritation, such as when Patience is told that she is rather plain, before he quickly snaps back to normal. Stiofan O’Doherty is a suitably self-absorbed Archibald, and his resonant, and highly pleasing, voice fits the character exactly. Dominic Brewer has a more direct voice and acting style, as befits the struggling Reginald, and he nails the song ‘Am I Alone and Unobserved?’, acting it out with a jacket and shawl. Sean Quigley’s Lady Jane, Edward Simpson’s Colonel and Matthew James Willis’s Duke also stand out amongst the minor principals.

Every time I attend one of the Union’s all-male G&S productions it is with slight trepidation that the concept may have gone stale. But it has yet to happen; if anything they’ve only gone from strength to strength.

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Sam Smith is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Patience Show Info


Directed by Sasha Regan

Cast includes Cast: Edward Charles Bernstone, Stiofan O’Doherty, Dominic Brewer, Sean Quigley, Matthew James Willis, Thomas Heard, Edward Simpson, James Lacey, Mark Gillon, Matthew Markwick, Oliver Metcalfe, William Whelton, Daniel Bartlett, Raymond Tait, Jarred Page, Gareth Andrews

Link http://www.uniontheatre.biz/

Running Time 2 hours (including one 20 minute interval)

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