ComedyDramaMusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

Iolanthe – East Riding Theatre, Beverley

Writer: W.S. Gilbert

Composer: Arthur Sullivan

Director: Sasha Regan

Choreographer: Mark Smith

Musical Director: Richard Baker

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The full title of this production is evidence of a distinctive – indeed, unique – brand, Sasha Regan’s All Male Iolanthe, a guarantee of a highly inventive and tirelessly energetic approach to Gilbert and Sullivan, with high camp colliding with more subtle reinterpretation. Since Regan’s Iolanthe first appeared in 2010, Regan De Wynter Williams Productions have taken aim at several other G&S operas and are now touring this revival of the highly acclaimed production.

Iolanthe is described in the programme as being “universally regarded as Sir Arthur Sullivan’s most beautiful score” which seems a bit over the top. It is, however, undoubtedly one of Gilbert’s silliest plots – and all the better for it. The fairy Iolanthe has married a mortal and produced a child, Strephon, who is a fairy down to the waist, with mortal legs! He has become an Arcadian shepherd, as you do in St. James’s Park, and is engaged to Phyllis, a ward of court beloved of the Lord Chancellor and half the House of Lords. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Queen of the Fairies ends up marrying a Guardsman. 

The premise for the all-male casting is that at the outset a party of naughty schoolboys venture by torchlight into an old theatre, find lots of opportunities for dressing up and a copy of the score of Iolanthe – and with that, the fairies trip on and the story begins.

Regan’s version of Iolanthe is respectful of the text, with the full range of musical numbers and less tinkering with the words than many a more conventional production. Vocally it is a little uneven, but both choruses, male and “female”, are powerful and stylish, and Richard Baker’s resourceful piano accompaniment means the orchestra is hardly missed – maybe in the entry of the Peers Chorus, “Loudly let the trumpet bray”.

Mark Smith’s choreography is vivid, expressive and often inspired. The fairies, elegantly striking ballet poses and signing their words, contrast with a ragbag set of peers harrumphing round the place. A number such as “Spurn not the nobly born” sums up the production’s virtues: well sung –straight – by Adam Pettit to the accompaniment of the peers’ miming of the virtues of huntin’ and shootin’.

Alastair Hill’s witty Lord Chancellor sails through some of Gilbert’s more demanding patter, though he lacks the crusty eccentricity we are accustomed to. Remarkably some of the more convincingly normal performances come in the female parts. Joe Henry’s understated, sweet-voiced Phyllis is, at times, genuinely touching and Richard Russell Edwards’ imperiousness as the Fairy Queen comes with a charming restraint – “her” manner definitely reflects the Head of a “ladies’ seminary” that the peers mistake her for. Among the other parts Duncan Sandilands’ turn as Private Willis is a joy, but this is very much an ensemble production. What that eminent Victorian William Schwenck Gilbert would have thought about chaps simpering sweetly in assorted undergarments is anyone’s guess, but he would have delighted in the crystal clear diction of all the cast.

A performance bursting with life, with 16 actors delivering complicated routines, Iolanthe might not be thought an obvious choice for the East Riding Theatre’s small, wing-less stage. Somehow it all fitted, with entries from all angles (notably through the door of a large chest/wardrobe), bold use of the whole auditorium and meticulous organisation – even at the height of the peers’ rumbustious tally-hoing, no collisions occurred!

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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