John Savournin, founder of Charles Court Opera, and the man who, along with David Eaton put together Express G & S during the lockdown, describes the show as a ‘new railway murder mystery featuring songs and/or scenes from every single G&S opera’. That pretty much sums it up. And where these can’t be lifted in their entirety to be worked into the new narrative, new and highly referential scenes have been written by Savournin, and new lyrics to well-loved melodies penned by Eaton, who also MD’s from the piano.
That the whole thing hangs together is very much to their credit, but that the evening is such a diverse entertainment is wholly down to the cast of three who between them play seven roles, though more of that later.
Gilbert once said when being interviewed about his work that his aim had been ‘…to treat a thoroughly farcical subject in a thoroughly serious manner’, and Savournin’s book certainly adheres to that dictum.
Matthew Kellett plays a Poirot-like detective on a train bound for his holiday, which must presumably be on the south coast, as the train passes through Reddering, the fictional Cornish fishing village which is the setting for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.
After persuading the train’s tea-lady Bridget (Catrine Kirkman) to make him a cup of tea even though the hour has long passed when one might usually be expected – thanks to the intervention of the train’s conductor, Reginald (Philip Lee) with whom she is in love, and who is in love with her – a dastardly happening is discovered which, though it was clearly foreshadowed, completely passed me by, making its eventual playing out all the more delicious and unexpected.
Following the discovery of the tragedy, the detective is persuaded to interview the passengers on the train, and that’s where things really take off – both Kirkman and Lee delight with performances of different characters.
The songs and roles are diverse, but the cast is never more secure than when treading familiar ground with actual G&S songs, especially when set in their original scenes.
For Philip Lee, that’s certainly when he enters as the music hall entertainer who happens to be aboard this particular express, (The Yeoman of the Guard’s) Jack Point. Though his Edwin Alexis Fairfax is a close run second.
Catrine Kirkman’s versatility stretches from the (The Pirates of Penzance’s) policeman who enters to try and persuade the detective to solve the terrible case – and her rendition of ‘A Policeman’s Lot’ is certainly far superior to that of Jo Brand at The Gielgud back in 2008 – right through to an elderly silver-haired matron.
However, the highlight for me was Matthew Kellett’s detective trying to get to sleep on the train and find, like Iolanthe’s Lord Chancellor before him, that there was always something to stop him from getting a good night’s sleep.
‘The Nightmare Song’ was also extremely atmospherically lit, so full marks to lighting designer Ian Wilson.
All in all this highly inventive little show is so full of cross-references and ‘in-jokes’ to be an enjoyable evening for the spoddy G&S fan like me, as well as being enough of a frivolous romp to make it a great introduction to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan for the unacquainted audience member.
On a quick personal note about the theatre, The Pleasance has been re-laid to be in a cabaret-style, and with a raised semi-mezzanine installed, which I love, though I suspect can’t last due to the financial imperative, so get a look in while you can.
- Musical Director: David Eaton
- Director: John Savournin
- Book and Lyrics: Gilbert & Sullivan with book by John Savournin and additional lyrics by David Eaton
- Cast: Matthew Kellett, Catrine Kirkman, Philip Lee
- Venue: The Pleasance Theatre, Islington
- Until 02 July 2021
- Time:7:30 (Running time: 2 hours without interval)