“I am not insensible to manly beauty”
Sasha Regan’s Iolanthe, as it has been billed, is the latest of the now regular all-male Gilbert & Sullivan productions that the Union Theatre has put on and following the cat-like-tread of Pirates of Penzance last year, this also makes the transfer to the glorious Wilton’s Music Hall, tucked away in East London. It ranked as my 20th best show last year, the 9th best musical and one of its performers, Matthew James Willis made it to second place in the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category of the fosterIANs so it was no surprise that a return engagement would be made to the show.
My review of the original production can be read here and I won’t recap it as much of what I said then remains as applicable now in how wonderful this show is in capturing a gorgeously innocent feel, free of sneering or post-modern archness which is no mean feat given the number of men dressed up as fairies singing falsetto. There’s a deep sincerity to these interpretations that is maintained here so that whilst there may be other productions that are better sung technically, I doubt there are any which have the same reverential irreverence, in perfectly capturing what G&S is about whilst going about it in a radically different way. This post will concentrate mainly on the differences between the two productions, a compare and contrast exercise if you will, although I won’t be focusing on how few shuttlecocks there were here by comparison.
It was interesting to see how some things worked better on the larger stage of the music hall whereas other aspects were not quite as good or effective as I remembered. With more room to spread out, Mark Smith’s choreography looked better here, the sign-language inspired flourishes given more room and the act I finale with the fairies versus the lords particularly benefitted from the split-level stage to fantastic effect. And the opportunity to use the balcony and the long aisles was used wisely and frequently as it added great atmosphere to certain entrances and dramatic moments.
The cast alterations also had a bit of an impact: I was sad to see that Kris Manuel’s Geordie Fairy Queen was not returning as he was a brilliant presence but Alex Weatherhill made an excellent replacement, a more motherly presence perhaps but warm of voice and twinkle-eyed in spirit. Louis Maskell made a much stronger leading man as Strephon, ridiculously handsome but crucially, charismatic too: his swagger and rich baritone marking him as one to watch.
I have to admit to being most gutted to find that Kingsley Hall was no longer playing Lord Mountararat though. His chemistry with Matthew James Willis’ Lord Tolloller was one of my most favourite things about the original show, finding an unexpected tenderness in the deep friendship between these two old men that was beautifully moving, something which his replacement Luke Fredericks was unable to match. The scene (and their relationship in general) was played much more for laughs, too far back to really connect and with a scene-stealing Phyllis in the foreground, I couldn’t help but be disappointed, something made worse by the fact that Hall is still in the company but just part of the ensemble now.
So a grand transfer which should be a well-deserved success for both the Union and Wilton’s and an interesting opportunity to directly compare and contrast the production in its two homes. I can’t lie, I do think I preferred it slightly in the more intimate space of the Union but there are significant elements that are stronger here and the whole show is performed with such elegance, charm and warmth, that it is irresistibly good fun and highly recommended, even without the shuttlecocks.