“He’s a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal”
Sasha Regan’s All-Male Iolanthe marks the third Gilbert and Sullivan show to receive the Union Theatre treatment in what is fast becoming an annual tradition of great quality. Last year’s Pirates of Penzance was hugely well-received transferring to both Wilton’s Music Hall and the Rose in Kingston so expectation was high for this lesser-known (by me at least!) show. What is it about? Well, the Lord Chancellor of England is in love with Phyllis, his shepherdess ward who loves Strephon, the half-fairy shepherd whose mother, Iolanthe, was condemned by the Fairy Queen to live at the bottom of a river for marrying a mortal, who is none other than the Lord Chancellor. Thus the House of Lords and the legal profession come in for a bit of a battering as the fairies wreak their mischievous havoc in order to ensure everyone gets their happy ending.
With such a convoluted plotline and a considerable number of characters in the ensemble, I can’t imagine there’s much room for manoeuvre in putting an effective, individual interpretation on the show but Sasha Regan really has done a fabulous job here in choosing a framework which neatly sidesteps a whole world of difficulties but provides its own emotional reference points, complemented beautifully by Stewart Charlesworth’s design . When the fairies first arrived, there was a collective intake of breath as we worked out whether it was OK to laugh or not but after just a couple of beats, as it suddenly becomes evident what the framing device is (look at what the costumes are made from…), everyone relaxed into the genial mood. Yes, the constant references to fairies and mentions of a midnight assignation in St James’ Park caused many a titter from the audience but the tone is always an affectionate one, it is silly but not too silly, it is camp but not too camp, above all it is rip-roaring great fun.
Matthew James Willis as Earl Tolloller and Kingsley Hall as Earl Mountararat were my favourite performances as the dusty old peers fighting over Phyllis’ hand but finding that their relationship is far more valuable than any woman and though it is amusing, it was unexpectedly sweetly moving too: they really work well together and Willis’ voice in particular is superb. Shaun McCourt also impressed as the Lord Chancellor with the trickiest of songs to sing in When I Went To The Bar. Alan Richardson steps once again into the soprano shoes as Phyllis/Phyliss with another amazing vocal performance of, once again, surprising delicacy given how high into his vocal range he is moving.
In fairyland, Kris Manuel’s Geordie Fairy Queen is a comic delight and well supported by Reuben Kaye and Adam Lewis Ford as his gossipy courtiers, all dealing well with the vocal challenges but excelling at keeping things the right side of humourous without descending into farce. And Christopher Finn finds a moving depth to his Iolanthe, the fairy who broke the rules. The only room for improvement that I could see would be in the connection between Phyllis/Phyliss and her intended, Strephon. As the bland romantic lead, Gianni Onori has a bit of a thankless task which is not helped by his rather straight interpretation: there’s not quite enough sense of fun about him yet or sufficient chemistry for us to want Phyllis to end up with him which hopefully will come once more settled into the role.
Chris Mundy’s musical direction and piano playing is richly detailed and teases from his company an unvariably high quality performance of Sullivan’s music ranging from the ta-ran-ta-ras of the Peers to the utterly gorgeous body of sound coming from the fairies as they summon Iolanthe from her prison. And the multi-layered powerful Act 1 finale sounds absolutely incredible, probably one of the best musical G&S moments and delivered here with a great urgency and panache. With some neat choreography from Mark Smith, especially with the fairies and their gestures and director Sasha Regan’s innate understanding of how best to utilise the space that she founded, (there’s probably no funnier sight onstage at the moment than the line of Peers approaching you rapidly as they arrive for their first number), this is the perfect early festive treat: book now though, it will surely sell out!