Gilbert and Sullivan’s rompingly modern fairytale is well worth seeing, says Anna Peel.
Gilbert and Sullivan can be relied upon to write humorous operas; but Iolanthe is more than just humorous, it is hilarious.
The wordplay is brilliant, of course. The plot – a collision of human and fairy worlds and the inevitable entanglements of the heart – might seem more suited for a vaguely medieval setting; instead, the action unfolds in a weirdly anachronistic world in which a suitor brings his fairy lover to Starbucks, a security guard takes selfies with a mob of fairies, and a man’s legs vote Conservative. It makes Iolanthe a transformatively funny experience, and this reviewer would be happy to see the whole thing at least twice more through.
Anachronism is not the most entertaining part of the performance, however. Iolanthe begins with a mimed action sequence that lasts about five minutes; the fairies cavort on the stage, silently hilarious, as we watch Iolanthe’s first fall unfold. It is a perfect encapsulation of this production’s greatest strength – the pitch-perfect body language and staging that had the audience in stitches without a single word from the actors.
Even when the singing began, the staging and direction remained the highlight of the show. No individual ever stood still for long, but it wasn’t just mindless fidgeting; you could pick any member of the chorus to watch, and they would inevitably be acting out their own piece of the story, never waiting for the main characters to prompt their reactions.
Moreover, the interaction of individual clusters had clearly been meticulously choreographed. If I had had a camera on me, virtually any snapshot of the show would have shown this intuitive beauty of staging – the tableau of the fairies and the Peerage in the last song of the first act; the fairies clinging to Private Willis (Jonas Andersson); the amorous Etonians and their rosy preening for Phyllis (Claudia Brown). The stage itself is relatively bare, and the lights simple but subtle; however, the bare stage only became noticeable in solo or duet numbers, as the staging in the more ensemble parts always outshone the emptiness.
Kudos to the Fairy Queen (Katie Walton) who among a wonderfully physical cast stood out as the most delightfully abandoned of all.
For an opening-night show, it did have a few kinks – line timing was not always exact, and the orchestra occasionally overpowered the voices on stage. These are certain to be ironed out tonight and in the nights to come.
However, something that may continue to be a problem is the lack of clearly articulated consonants in some of the lead voices. For example, Phyllis has an amazingly strong voice that carries across the whole venue, but it was very difficult to catch her individual words beneath the vibrato and the long vowels. Other singers suffered from the flaws of the West Road Concert Hall – voices simply do not carry very well there. As such, it was occasionally difficult to make out what some of the fairies were singing. However, the communicative body language employed by the whole cast means that the gist of the songs comes across relatively clearly.
This only makes those whose words are easy to hear stand out more. The Chancellor (Seth Kruger), who has some of the fastest, wordiest songs, manages to carry every word clearly into the audience (one of the many reasons to see Iolanthe as soon as possible is his “highly susceptible Chancellor” number). The lead dark fairy, Leila, also has a beautifully enunciated, carrying voice – not to mention a superb costume. And Private Willis’ second-act opener transformed him from an amusing background character to my favourite security guard ever to opera.
All in all, Iolanthe is well worth the price of a ticket – and likely to only improve as the week goes on.