reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 July
Musically, Iolanthe is one of Sullivan’s most interesting scores, with extended lyrical, dramatic and comic sequences flowing easily in symmetry with Gilbert’s topsy-turvy plot and tongue-twisting verses and dialogue.
Like most genre classics, the political undertones resonate as much in 2018 as they did in 1882. Sasha Regan’s all-male production is not a straightforward one, though extremely well-sung throughout, with Joe Henry’s Phyllis, Christopher Finn’s Iolanthe, Adam Pettit’s Tolloller and Duncan Sandilands’ Private Willis making particular impact.
During Richard Baker’s overture (the accompaniment is a piano reduction) a group of young men – think senior boarding-school students in a dormitory lark – invade the stage lit only by their torches. There’s a Narnia-type wardrobe, some step-ladders and some boxes.
The fairies turn out to be a troupe of muscular Wilis, wearing singlets, loose drawers and the occasional (upside-down) corset. Mark Smith’s choreography pays homage to Petipa’s Giselle as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. The dancing is also excellent.
When to play Gilbert “straight”, accepting what is of its period, and when to send-up what is already a parody is sometimes exceptionally difficult. So the peers’ chorus of disdain is sung with the right undertone of contempt while Willis’ political musings present “liberal” and “conservative” as opposites not necessarily glued to any particular party.
Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen, fox-furred and hand-bagged, is a delicious characterisation, with real menace in her threats to her recalcitrant followers. Richard Carson’s Strephon is another well-judged portrait.
Potential villain of the story is the Lord Chancellor. Alastair Hill makes him younger than is traditional and brings out the deviousness of the lawyer, though I wanted more incisiveness in the patter songs, especially the Act Two nightmare. Articulation is the magic key for these numbers.
Four and a half-star rating.
Iolanthe runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre ntil 7 Juky with matinèes on 5 and 7 July. The 2018 national tour ends at the Greenwich Theatre between 23 and 28 July.