Writer/Director: John Savournin
Musical Director/additional lyrics : David Eaton
John Savournin is currently beyond busy with his witty and sympathetic butchering of much-loved operas. While the latest of his Whistle Stop Operas for Opera North, The Magic Flute, is still happily making its way around Yorkshire, the Courtyard of the Lawrence Batley Theatre hosted a glorious piece of nonsense, Express G&S, concocted in partnership with Musical Director David Eaton. Eaton updated some of the lyrics and supplied a sprightly piano accompaniment while Savournin wrote the ingenious script and directed the whole crazy farrago.
Charles Court Opera is steeped in Gilbert and Sullivan, though reverence for the original is nowhere on the agenda. So, apart from anything else, Savournin and Eaton know perfectly how to play an audience made up of those who just want to be entertained, enthusiastic G&S fans and, finally, those obsessive Savoyards who pick up the smallest allusion: “I wondered what they’d do from Utopia Limited – I thought it might be Eagle High in Cloudland Soaring.” And it was!
So we start with a jolly, silly story – or a jolly silly story. An eminent French detective (not Belgian, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference) catches the G&S Express and is fussed over by the conductor and the tea lady. Then an awful crime is committed and the detective is forced to try to solve it which he does by a combination of blunt wit and good luck, having investigated three possible suspects from the cast lists of G&S operas.
The tea lady and her trolley are a good example of Savournin’s triple whammy of gags: there are some nice jokes about high tea and pork pies, then the presence of squares of white linen leads her to christen it her “doyly cart” (to the tune of Little Buttercup), then for an extra in-joke the tea lady is called Bridget. Savoyards of a certain age will remember when Bridget D’Oyly Carte ruled copyrights and unofficial productions with an iron hand! Other in-jokes abound and much fun is had with Rederring, the setting for Ruddigore and also, as “red herring”, a staple of Agatha Christie yarns – as you might guess, it’s the station before Penzance for the G&S Express.
Matthew Kellett is the active and self-confident detective, delivering himself of any number of G&S distortions and some straight versions, such as a splendid take on the Nightmare Song from Iolanthe. Philip Lee, a subservient conductor with a hint of the television Inspector Japp, becomes a boater-clad oaf who’s second cousin to Nanki Poo and a terrific Jack Point the jester. Catrine Kirkham squawks like Katherine Harrison in a 1940s film as Bridget before transforming herself into a Sergeant of Police, Yum Yum and a variation on Lady Jane from Patience. It’s quite an achievement to go from Yum Yum’s soprano self-glorification to Lady Jane’s contralto lament, but it’s typical of the versatility of all three singers.
Publicity boasts that all G&S operas are represented, some, one suspects, very briefly. A fair few of the numbers emerge unscathed, some get totally different lyrics, some take us to a parallel universe: the Mikado’s “little list” is replaced by the manifest of passengers on the train and – would you believe? – they’re all G&S characters. Jessie Huckin has devised a simple set that focuses the energy of the production: apart from the doyly cart, two double old-style railway seats zoom around while characters sit, sprawl, sleep and shove them or bob up and down behind in sequence hide and seek.