Reviewer: Helen McWilliams
Star rating: *****
One of the first operas I was taken to see when I was a child was Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance starring Paul Nicholas and Bonnie Langford. I was aged 10 years old at the time and yet I remember it as if it were yesterday. My love of Gilbert & Sullivan took root and I’ve watched most of their masterpieces (I’ve even performed in The Pirates of Penzance, albeit in an amateur capacity). Iolanthe was the last on my little list, I HAD to see it at the Coliseum. It didn’t disappoint, in fact if I could sneak in again on 7 April, I would!
Before the curtain opened we were entertained by the sarcasm and wit of Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle) who appeared as the resident Fireman, his job being to undo the pyrotechnical mayhem caused by the Queen of the Fairies’ wand! In fact it was surely no coincidence that he was both fireman and warm-up man! The tone of the show was already set, however a cursory peep at the audience from a random flamingo on stage right firmly established the overall atmosphere of the piece. Not to mention there’s a sheep in one of the boxes… standard patron of the opera?
Set between Fairyland and the House of Peers, we witness Fairy Queen (Yvonne Howard) call disgraced Fairy Iolanthe (Samantha Price) back from the banishment she has endured as the result of her ‘unlawful’ marriage to the Lord Chancellor (Andrew Shore). With Iolanthe’s return to fairyland comes a surprise in the form of her half fairy (from the waist up)/half mortal (from the waist down) son, Strephon (Marcus Fansworth) whom she conceived with her husband. Strephon is a shepherd, excitedly anticipating his marriage to Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne). Just to complete the circle of bizarre coincidences, Phyllis is the Lord Chancellor’s Ward! The introduction of the peers completes the picture and how do they make their appearance? On board a rather resplendent train (filing through from one side to the other!), their different personalities are abundantly clear. One of them has a dog who completely drew my attention, so effective, enhancing the comedy elements which fuel the piece, in the best possible way.
The overall production is underpinned by slapstick, flying fairies, comic timing de force from the full ensemble and of course, the glorious score of Gilbert & Sullivan brought magically to life by (in my humble opinion) some of the most talented operatic performers.
Musical highlights are difficult to pinpoint as the entire opera captured my imagination. However ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither‘ was a lively number with eye catching choreography (by Lizzi Gee) and Phyllis and Strephon’s duet ‘None Shall Part Us From Each Other‘ offered a perfect opportunity to showcase their chemistry. ‘Oh, Foolish Fay‘, the Fairy Queen’s aria was beautifully performed by Yvonne Howard, her face is so stunningly expressive and her story-telling capabilities shone in this number.
The set, designed by the late, Olivier nominated Paul Brown is engaging, frames the action like an elegant picture postcard of years gone by and offers the most exceptional backdrop as befits the Coliseum stage. Cal McCrystal’s direction meets my own expectations of how a Gilbert & Sullivan opera should be portrayed, I’m eager to see him direct more of them.
Samantha Price in the title role is quirky, girly and comedy seems to be her forte, plus her vocal ability is astronomical. Andrew Shore wowed me as the Lord Chancellor and ‘Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest … ‘When you’re lying awake’ was also a personal highlight. Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne were perfectly cast as the young lovers, Strephon and Phyllis. Ben McAteer and Ben Johnson made a tremendous double act as Earl of Mountararat and Earl of Tolloller. Llio Evans was beautifully whimsical as Celia with Joanne Appleby feisty and flirty as Leila. Barnaby Rea as Private Willis makes an idyllic love interest for the Fairy Queen, their ‘love story’ although brief and flighty really tickled me.
Iolanthe closes on 7 April 2018 and, as the Queen of the Fairies herself, Yvonne Howard, tells me in an exclusive interview (Interview: Yvonne Howard) – it’s almost sold out! Try to beg, borrow or steal a ticket here: Iolanthe Tickets
Photo Credits: Clive Barda/Arenapal