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‘McCrystal’s touch and comic vision is what makes it special’: IOLANTHE – ENO at London Coliseum ★★★★★

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London Coliseum – until 7 April

I am happy to say that in the second act there is some inappropriate sexual harassment. By garishly clad fairies, deploying weaponised soprano trills and terrorism-by-tutu as they move in, crazed by desire for the middle-aged, timidly bachelorly members of the House of Lords.

That their Queen and their faery laws forbid marriage to mortals means nothing to the reckless, trippingly St-Trinian chorus: Iolanthe got away with it and bore a camp demi-fairy son Strephon after all. And any minute now, assisted by some legislative sleight of hand, their Queen too will succumb to a philosophically minded mortal guardsman and give him instant wings.

I was not always a devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan, having been depressed by too much D’Oyly Cartery in youth. But newer productions – notably the hilarious all-male ones – have drawn me back, and this completes it. For English National Opera to recruit Cal McCrystal – our most precise and inventive creator of physical comedy – to direct this feyest of politico-legal satires from 1882 is a masterstroke.

Musically, of course, it is splendid, under Timothy Henty and with the ENO chorus and seasoned soloists (Samantha Price as Iolanthe is, wisely, allowed the show’s one un-comical and genuinely moving operatic moment as she pleads for her son near the end).

Paul Brown’s design, with pretty Pollock-theatrey cutouts and a very nice wheel-on House of Lords, is beautifully Victorian, with added nonsense when the peers crash through the paper backdrop aboard Stephenson’s Rocket. Several fairies (and one peer) do fly. But McCrystal’s touch, and comic vision, is what makes it special.

From the first moment when the fairies, of all shapes and sizes, trip into their opening chorus in dazzling chaotic outfits, acorn-capped or daffodil-daffy, and move like a determined keep-fit class for mature Lacroix fashion-victims, you have to laugh. At the dances, the moves, the drink-dispensing unicorn, the gloriously absurd puppetry going wrong. The director has brought in three of his regular performers for the extreme physicality – notably Richard Leeming as the Chancellor’s page is hurled around almost distressingly and emerges gamely every time. But the operatic regulars are more than up for it, stomping and tripping and milking every good joke. When Marcus Farnsworth’s amiable nitwit Strephon sings his lovely duet with Ellie Laugharne’s Phyllis, they gamely ignore the fact that the black-masked puppeteers manoeuvring sheep behind them can’t see through their masks, and bump into one another as helplessly they search for the wings. Which feels, delightfully, like a nod of acknowledgement to the hundreds of am-dram productions of G &S down the years which kept the flame alive..

Anyway, it’s a delight. Really is. The new jokes – notably the fireman one – are a pleasure, but not too much is done to modernize it. And surtitles, if you can tear your eye away from the mayhem on stage, remind us of the utter brilliance, the absurdism, mad rhymes, unexpected neatness and damn sharp satire which WS Gilbert flung out like a literary Catherine-wheel. Gorgeous. I recant. I regret the years of avoiding G&S.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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