Melissa Blease reviews Sasha Regan’s All-Male Iolanthe, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 16 June
It could be argued that we’re so familiar with the style of comic opera geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan – the Victorian-era theatrical partnership who paved the way for subsequent musical maestros including Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Ira Gershwin, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and many others who happily cite G&S as amongst their main influences – that we don’t really need to see any more. But then someone comes along (in this instance, director Sasha Regan) to subtly, skilfully give the whole genre a gracious shake-up… and we’re right back in the zone, wondering why we ever thought of leaving.
Having already shaken and stirred traditional perceptions of G&S productions with sell-out tours of The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, Regan has once again rallied her dancing boys and waved her magic wand over yet another G&S masterpiece, this time around skittering the enchanting tale of Iolanthe and her fairy friends into the spotlight.
Fairy Iolanthe has been banished from fairyland for committing the sin of marrying a mere mortal. Her shepherd son Strephon (fairy from the waist up; mortal from the waist down) wants to marry fully-mortal Phyllis… as do, bizarrely enough, several members of the House of Peers; it’s a rather, erm, convoluted plot, to say the least. And so, we’re led on a merry dance that not only offers a crash course in fairy facts’n’folklore but, in typical G&S style, takes plenty of equally merry pops at the British government of the day (Iolanthe originally premiered in 1882) and sophisticatedly satirises notions of then-contemporary society.
To set the scene, a group of schoolboys explore an old theatre by torchlight. They stumble across an ancient copy of a musical score in a wardrobe, the details of which are then revealed to us via a lavish tapestry of lush melodies, impeccably-choreographed footwork and lashings of subtly camp, supremely witty flourishes, supported and accompanied throughout by musical director Richard Baker, whose upright piano is an intrinsic component of the ensemble cast. Selecting particular members of that terrifically tight ensemble to lavish with praise is akin to choosing a favourite kitten from a basket of adorable, attention-grabbing wriggly things, but it deserves to be said that Christopher Finn is a mesmerising Iolanthe, Joe Henry a stunning Phyllis, Richard Russell Edwards a piercingly piquant Fairy Queen and Richard Carson a charmingly confused Strephon.
While Regan’s trademark ‘twist’ of replacing roles originally written for women with male actors could be seen as gimmicky, superb production values make the cross-dressing element almost incidental – almost. Of all the G&S librettos, Iolanthe is perhaps the one that slightly too obviously lends itself to Regan’s purposes, which sort of makes the satire-within-a-satire element a little bit less subtle than in previous productions.
But hey, let’s not overthink it; sometimes – and most definitely in this instance – shallow can be celebratory, whimsical can be wonderful, and the art of true high camp truly, highly complex.
All in all, this is a thoroughly entertaining, wholly eccentric, intelligent reboot of Very British Theatre at its barmiest, brightest best.