“There is more innocent fun within me than the casual spectator might allow”
The all-male Gilbert and Sullivan adaptations at the Union Theatre have become something of an annual institution now and though we’ve been kept waiting a few more months than usual, the next instalment has arrived with Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride. Last year’s Iolanthe was exceptionally good and I rather enjoyed The Pirates of Penzance the year before so it was safe to say that expectations were rather high for this, but this was a show I knew nothing of beforehand – my love for G+S being mainly limited to the film of Pirates… which I watched over and over again as a child.
Patience is a satirical look at the aesthetic movement (yeah, me neither) which was a fashionable movement of the 1880s that preached devotion to the arts and lofty ideals of love as a duty rather than a pleasure. We follow Reginald and Archibald as they both pursue a milkmaid named Patience, whilst a group of ladies swoon over the aesthetically minded pair of gents and ignore the returning bumptious soldiers to whom they were engaged the previous year. Gentle fun is poked at everyone as attentions shift from man to man and the hapless soldiers are left trying to become aesthetes themselves in order to win back their feckless ladies.
The usual high standards of the Union are maintained here: Regan’s direction utilises the space well in the configuration that is seemingly becoming their default with seating in three banks along the width of the auditorium; Drew McOnie’s choreography has a wry humour about it which picks up much of the lyrical wordplay and translates it into witty routines which fill the room; and Kingsley Hall’s design is a foppish, floral, flowing flourish of homemade charm. Richard Bates’ musical direction from behind his piano keeps a tight rein on the ensemble, whose vocal talents really do stretch up the range without ever seeming strained.
But for all the silly joyousness that occasionally shines through in this production, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is a conceit which is being stretched a little too thin now. Iolanthe worked magically with the ingenious concept of boys playing dress-up which meant one could read all sorts of meaning into their journeys of discovery and The Pirates of Penzance really benefitted from the contrast of buccaneers and maidens. But here the single-sex casting doesn’t really add anything, the shallowness of the narrative means little emotion can be generated, and the exaggeration that comes from poking fun at the aesthetic movement means that for once, the charge of camping it up could be laid at the door here and that hasn’t previously been the case.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh because I didn’t feel Patience rivalled my previous experiences here, though I don’t think anyone could claim this is a classic piece of G+S as neither the score not the book ever quite lift off in all honesty, but it is still a highly enjoyable experience nevertheless. Stiofàn O’Doherty’s gallivanting ‘Archibald the Alright’ is a vision in tight white jodphurs and possessed of an unexpectedly purring baritone, Sean Quigley’s plain Jane and James Lacey’s Angela both navigate potentially tricky characterisations with consummate ease and Edward Simpson delivers the customary patter song with panache. The Union may have maintained a tradition with this production of patience but I suspect they will have to work just a little harder next year to justify its continued existence.