‘It’s as camp as a flamingo in fishnets… and it works’: IOLANTHE – Touring ★★★★

In Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

Touring – reviewed at Richmond Theatre

It must be nearly five years since Sasha Regan’s all-male Iolanthe at Wilton’s Music Hall caused me to break a lifelong resistance and enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan. So – on the far side of Cal McCrystal’s fabulously funny ENO production this year, with the ENO chorus ladies tripping hither and thither with glorious thumps, it was an act of homage to go back to this revival of the Regan boys’-own version as it sets out on its 2018 tour. It’s stripped down compared to the Coliseum one, of course, with simply a pit pianist (presumably Richard Baker the musical director) and the simplest of props and sets.

And in its cheerful way, it’s almost as glorious. Once again Regan frames it as a lads’ adventure in a cluttered attic and wardrobe: they creep on with torches in the dark during the overture and fool around with costumes from old trunks. But one, sitting intent alone stage left, seems to have found an old score of Iolanthe and got engrossed… It’s a lovely idea, though  I humbly offer one tiny note: in a substantial theatre – like this one, way bigger than Wilton’s – the audience needs a bit more light and a moment to notice that detail. My companion, new to the production, didn’t see the score moment at all.

But once the cast get going they’re a joy: more ambitious in dancing than last time (excellent balletic-mimetic movement choreographed by Mark Smith) and vocally strong, managing the female parts well, from the prevailing falsetto to a nice counter-tenory soprano from Joe Henry as Phyllis, an elegant Iolanthe in Christopher Finn and a remarkable contralto from Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen.

The words – vital as ever, satirically romantic or elegant patter – are excellently clear and the physicality hilarious. When Russell Edwards asks plaintively about the banished Iolanthe: “Who taught me to curl inside a buttercup?” you snort. When the chorus of willing fairies is decked out in roll-on suspender belts over their rugger shorts, the maternal heart melts with the memory of all those sleepovers when we let the son’s mates loose in the dressing-up box.

As for the Lords,  dressing-gowns, the odd crochet blanket and forgotten bygone hats do the business:  topee and topper, bowler and boater, a mortarboard for the Lord Chancellor, ta-ran-ta-ra, perfect.    The very spirit of play, of disrespectful glee.   As I remarked last time,   it’s as camp as a flamingo in fishnets.   And it works.  Leaving the matinée even the most senior of Richmond’s citizens could be seen doing little skips and humming ‘In for a penny, in for a pound, it’s love that makes the world go round”.

Libby 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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Libby 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.