Writer W.S. Gilbert
Composer Arthur Sullivan
Director Cav. Vivian Coates
Conductor James Hendry
Reviewer Ron Simpson
The International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival is a remarkable event. Now housed in Harrogate after some 20 years in Buxton, this year it celebrated its Silver Jubilee. The festival runs to three or four performances a day for 20 days, mostly in the Royal Hall, with plenty of matinees in Harrogate Theatre and fringe events in the specially created Utopia Pavilion next to the Royal Hall. The most remarkable feature is the fusion of amateur and professional performances, with two separate adjudicated competitions for amateurs and performances of five Gilbert and Sullivan operas, plus a single performance of Sullivan’s grand opera Haddon Hall, by the professional National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company.
The NGSOC is very much the natural successor to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company that toured G&S time out of mind, though after 25 years most of the veterans of D’Oyly Carte have departed the scene. Iolanthe, seen at a matinee on the final weekend of the festival, is pretty much a traditional production. Director Cav. Vivian J. Coates’ innovations don’t go for a lot, though Phyllis’ transformation in Act 2 from Dresden shepherdess to 1920s vamp makes its impact. On the other hand, if there is little to excite, there is nothing to annoy (except for a pointless update on Private Willis’ song which destroys the existing gag) and much to enjoy.
Iolanthe begins in an Arcadian landscape, probably somewhere near St. James’ Park, and spends the first half hour in the world of fairy. Iolanthe married a mortal against fairy laws and has been imprisoned at the bottom of a stream as punishment. When she is released, she brings a whole can of worms with her. Her son, Strephon, is a semi-human, semi-fairy Arcadian shepherd engaged to Phyllis, a ward of court. The House of Lords come blundering into Arcadia, probably on their lunch-break, and the descent into lunacy makes Monty Python seem like social realism.
Not alone among Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Iolanthe relies on the female chorus to get things going at the start, but an extended bout of fairies tripping hither doesn’t necessarily make for momentum. So it is in this production, apart from Gaynor Keeble’s authoritative Queen of the Fairies, more human that the traditional D’Oyly Carte contralto battleaxe, but still wittily dominant, with Jennifer Parker (Iolanthe) and Rosanna Harris (Phyllis) capable, but a little pallid.
Things brighten up no end with the arrival of the peers, not least because the female chorus’ exchanges with the peers (antiphonal, confrontational, ultimately amorous) are so sparky – no lack of momentum now.
As the Lord Chancellor Richard Gauntlett, though not at his most assured, is drily amusing, with a nice line in quirky idiosyncrasy. Eddie Wade (Mountararat) and Nicholas Sales (Tololler) shine as the aristocratic representatives of our nation, delivering their great set pieces (“Spurn not the nobly born” and “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves”) with the perfect mix of nobility and drollery. Anyone who thinks Strephon a dull part should see Bradley Travis, very much his own man, playing off the others cleverly and delivering his songs with immaculate clarity.
As they warm to their task, James Hendry obtains fine playing from the orchestra and the uncredited designs work well, with attractive back-cloths and pleasing costume changes.
Reviewed on 26th August 2018 | Image: Jane Stokes