Express G&S – The Pleasance Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer and Director: John Savournin

Musical Director and additional Lyrics – David Eaton

There’s a real challenge to an audience with a production like this. Here we have a 70 minute trip at full pelt through the entire Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre, with a substantial piece of an Agatha Christie murder mystery on board – enough to make a viewer feel incredibly greedy if they’re not careful.

The musical follows a continental detective as he tries to relax on a train journey after a heavy caseload. Unfortunately, his break is broken by a terrible crime committed on board. All are suspected, and all need to give their alibis for the night in question before he makes his final deliberations. He’s not helped at all by the fact that every character he meets is either a) extremely silly or b) secretly in love with another on the train or c) both at the same time.

We’re promised that there are pieces of every G&S show in here, though some loom larger than others and are easier to pick out. Mixing some of the pair’s original songs alongside a few with freshly re-written lyrics, John Savournin has also flexed his punning muscles with the scripting and decided to show off a little with references to G&S work and business sprinkled throughout.

We see the famous Three Little Maids from the Mikado turned into a song in praise of taking a late high tea. A sweet version of The Policemen’s Lot from Pirates of Penzance is kept whole as is an absolutely ripping performance of the Nightmare Song from Iolanthe. Even in between all that, a potential highlight of the whole piece, is a small pun about getting often confused – one for the G&S insiders perhaps.

Clearly this is the work of someone with a deep affection for the Victorian pair. it’s a rich mix that fully repays close attention. Taken altogether, it’s really enough to make one want to crack open an extensive G&S encyclopedia to try and hunt down each little item.

These songs, jokes, references and characters are brought to vivid life by a cast that will be familiar to previous guests of Charles Court Opera. Matthew Kellett plays our detective, a tightly-wound, mustachioed chap who fizzes with energy. The highly versatile Philip Lee plays the train conductor, a jester and a striped-blazered cad – a slapstick and bombastic performance that contrasts pleasantly with his fine baritone voice. Rounding out the cast is Catrine Kirkman as the refreshment trolley lady, an old spinster and a copper, bringing an audience-indulgent wink and a nod to each character to accompany her bright, clear vocals.

All of this is backed by David Eaton on piano and framed by Jessie Huckin and Charlie Stebbings simple, malleable and detailed sets. It feels straightforward, but that’s deceptive. It’s intricate, funny, detailed and clever without condescension – so far so G&S. Taking the musical ideas and remaking them, framing it within classic plotting, brings some novelty and covers the whole creation with a real charm. It genuinely delivers something for everyone – so even if you feel you’re lacking in G&S knowledge, or you’re a D’Oyly Carte buff, it really doesn’t matter, matter, matter.

Runs until 2 July 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Intricate, funny, detailed and clever

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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