IOLANTHE
Wilton's Music Hall, London E1
Opened 1 April, 2011
****

A few years ago the dernier cri in Gilbert & Sullivan was director Chris Monks’ audacious comic re-imaginings, setting The Mikado in a cricket club or giving a mock-Tarantino spin to The Pirates Of Penzance. Now, though, that mantle has passed to the little Union Theatre in Southwark and its all-male productions. I belatedly caught up with this phenomenon last spring when the Union’s third such outing, Pirates, transferred into the East rather than the West End, being followed now by that autumn’s Iolanthe.
    
There is, inevitably, a deal of camp in such a staging, but these productions preserve the fun and japery of G&S, not steep it in the aesthetic known as Queer (with a capital Q). The female roles are played not in drag but in a kind of pick-and-mix costuming; the characterisations are not travesti or mock-female or androgynous, simply… well, slightly more boyish than most of the male roles, but only slightly. Sasha Regan’s production is apparently set in a boys’ public school; I must confess I didn’t twig that, but I certainly picked up a boys-at-play vibe from the overture during which several lads, rummaging around lit only by their electric torches, come upon a wardrobe and a storybook. An Enid Blytonesque feel results, and the 1940s-dressing-up-trunk air of Stewart Charlesworth and Jean Gray’s costumes blends well with the dilapidated splendour of this former Victorian music hall. Alex Weatherhill, for instance, plays the Fairy Queen in fox fur, brocade sleeves, girdle and sock suspenders. Alan Richardson’s Phyllis is appealing though thinner of voice in the upper register where the character’s score frequently veers; Shaun McCourt’s own hair is almost as luxuriant as the formal peruke would be of the Lord Chancellor he portrays, and copes well if a little leisurely with the patter song “When you’re lying awake”.
    
Iolanthe has one of Arthur Sullivan’s most ethereal scores, and the plot certainly does nothing to weigh the music down with its inconsequential mishmash of fairies, shepherds, peers of the realm and guardsmen. Regan and/or choreographer Mark Smith gives the fairies a constant gestural language as if, having no wings except whatever scarves or bunting are handy, their hands must do the fluttering. It makes for a gay evening more in the outdated sense than the contemporary one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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