English National Opera’s revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe is huge amounts of fun at the London Coliseum
“None can resist your fairy eloquence”
Considering that I have loved the film version of The Pirates of Penzance with all of my heart for as long as I can remember (the VHS probably still lives at my parents’ house!), I’ve actually seen precious little Gilbert & Sullivan onstage. Indeed, without Sasha Regan’s reinterpretations, it’s a very small number. Of Regan’s work, Iolanthe was definitely the one that charmed me the most (I’ve seen it three times over the years) and so the chance to see English National Opera’s production in the august surroundings of the London Coliseum was one I gladly took up.
Cal McCrystal’s work here is a revelation. You have to imagine that operetta is something of a hard sell for contemporary audiences but this is the kind of production that might actually change minds. It amps up the fun to the nth degree and so releases a lot of the stuffiness that could accompany something written more than 140 years ago. Visually, it is splendid – there’s flying (when it works), a pantomime cow, the lushest of costumes, pratfalls aplenty, so many sheep, plus you also find out what happens when you press a unicorn’s horn.
And whilst it fully embraces the silliness (the core plot follows half-man, half-fairy Strephon’s attempts to become a Lord and marry Phyllis who is loved by the Lord Chancellor who is also her guardian), there’s also real satirical heft at play here. Gilbert’s lyrics take aim at the late-Victorian political establishment and it is shocking how much of it still resonates today, especially where the House of Lords is concerned, but as McCrystal layers in considerable numbers of visual cues, its politics are brought bang-up-to-date as it tears strips out of the current Westminster clown show.
Musically, conductor Chris Hopkins cultivates a rich sound from the ENO orchestra and the massed bodies of the chorus is always a thrill to see on a stage. Marcus Farnsworth’s Strephon and Ellie Laugharne’s Phyllis make suitably earnest romantic leads, John Savournin’s Lord Chancellor and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ redoubtable Fairy Queen impress both vocally and in the air, and Samantha Price’s sweet-voiced Iolanthe wafts perfectly in her lime green ensemble. Lizzi Gee’s choreography just adds to atmosphere of fun – tarantara indeed, or should that be willahalah willaloo.