Forget Hamilton. There’s a new ‘hot ticket’ in town, and it is, of all things, Iolanthe at the ENO!
Appearing as fresh, glittering, and risqué as a vintage Rolls Royce in a cherry-red diamond wrap, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 comic opera has been liberally sprinkled with fresh fairy dust by director Cal McCrystal, referencing not only contemporary politicians, but also paying homage to more than one much-loved television comedy of the past fifty years.
The fun starts even before the overture begins with the appearance of Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle) of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade letting us know what sort of an evening we’re going to be in for – The real Shaw attended the opening night in 1882, giving the Queen of the Fairies the chance to aim her name-checking directly at him as he sat in the middle of the stalls.
When the curtain rises we are in designer Paul Brown’s last set (Brown died in November 2017) and his proscenium-within-a-proscenium, cast somewhere between Maria Bjornson’s frame for Phantom, and Pugin’s interior of the Houses of Parliament, lends a more intimate backdrop to the events which unfold, in spite of The Coliseum being double the capacity of the show’s original home in The Savoy.
The touches of genius genuinely are too many to mention, but the highlights for me were the arrival of the peers…on what I can only describe as Stephenson’s Rocket, the various animals – sheep, a dog, a horse with a very long tongue, a flamingo… – interpolated into the action, and the sight of seeing a pantomime cow singing along with the peers.
In the title role Samantha Price has crystal clear diction, and the moment in act two where she reveals herself to her husband, who has thought her dead for twenty-five years, is quite, quite moving.
Her husband being the Lord Chancellor, ENO favourite Andrew Shore who gamely not only manages briefly to bare his buttocks, but has a running gag with his Page Boy, Richard Leeming, which culminates calamitously during ‘It’s love that make the world go round’, and also for the first time – certainly in my knowledge – manages to lead the ENO first night audience in a singing contest.
The young lovers, Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) and Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne, channelling Queenie from Blackadder…) are not only well paired, but possess an unexpected aptitude for clog dancing.
The Queen of the Fairies, Yvonne Howard in full Jean-Paul Gaultier conical bra, is at times touching and subversive. Her constantly calling Strephon ‘Strap-on’ doesn’t, for some reason I cannot explain, wear thin. Perhaps it’s to do with the actual flying she does in this production (made possible thanks to eleventh-hour funding from Lord Glendonbrook).
No production at The Coliseum would be complete without the magnificent ENO Chorus and here, possibly for the first time, they’re allowed to run riot. The fairies genuinely look as if they’re having a whale of a time, as do the lords, even the one who looks suspiciously like Boris Johnson.
Additional material (including the pronouncements of Captain Shaw) is credited to Toby Davies and McCrystal, and Gilbert would, I am sure, have loved it as a man of the theatre. In fact, I’m positive that both Gilbert and Sullivan would have been one hundred percent behind this production. It has the nuance and musicality to please the latter, and the playful theatricality to please the former.
At the opening of Act Two Private Willis (Barnaby Rea) points out just how absurd a two-party political system actually is. What’s frightening is that almost a hundred and forty years, and two world wars later, that’s almost exactly what we’ve still got.
- Book & Lyrics: Sir W.S Gilbert
- Music: Sir Arthur Sullivan
- Director: Cal McCrystal
- Cast includes: Andrew Shore, Samantha Price, Ellie Laugharne, Yvonne Howard, Marcus Farnsworth, Ben McAteer, Ben Johnson, Barnaby Rea, Llio Evans, Joanne Appleby, and the ENO Chorus
- English National Opera, London
- Until 7 April 2018