Reviewed – 23rd June 2021
“Highly inventive and witty, it is Gilbert & Sullivan meets Agatha Christie meets Monty Python”
Fifteen months on from the first lockdown, as we approach the possibility of most restrictions being lifted on July 19th, conversations still tend to focus on the havoc and devastation the pandemic has wreaked on society – particularly the arts. But it is still possible to reflect, too, on the positives; and the way that many institutions and individuals have had to adapt. The well-known proverb, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has taken centre stage this past year. One such company is the award-winning Charles Court Opera (who are certainly not short of inventiveness in the first place). Their most recent pantomime, ‘Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown, was filmed exclusively for online release in collaboration with the King’s Head Theatre, and have just released a cast recording of ‘Iolanthe’.
Their latest work, “Express G&S”, was conceived during lockdown, starting out as a ‘Reduced Shakespeare’ inspired exploration of all the Gilbert & Sullivan operas. The needs of social distancing restrictions called the shots, leading to a condensed cast, accompanied by one pianist. As with most great ideas, it was probably ill advised. How to perform the complete works of Gilbert & Sullivan in just seventy-five minutes! But thankfully they persevered, and it grew and spiralled to become a kind of ‘murder mystery’. Fairly light on murder or mystery, it is weighed with nuance, comedy, imagination, cleverness, and delightful silliness. It maintains the air of a Victorian parlour entertainment while fitting in perfectly into the twenty-first century.
A motley crew of outlandish characters are portrayed by Matthew Kellett, Catrine Kirkman and Philip Lee, supported by Musical Director David Eaton on piano. Eaton also ingeniously adapted the lyrics of the many of Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches that run through the show. Sometimes tweaking, sometimes replacing completely, Eaton is a master of the craft, and with John Savournin’s book and direction we are taken on a glorious joyride through the G&S repertoire. There are references to all the works. I must hold up my hand and admit to most of them flying over my head, but I did catch a few of the more oblique ones that tried to slip by me.
But even if you are a complete stranger to the Victorian operatic duo, there is more than enough to feast upon. Kellett joins the G&S Express as a passenger before being drawn into the mystery aboard the train. Adopting the mantle of Inspector Pierrot, he has to deal with an assortment of oddballs, played variously by Kirkman and Lee. The solving of the mystery is a mere side-line. What pulls focus are the joyous performances and the virtuosity of tackling the musical numbers. On the surface there is a casualness; an almost throwaway quality to the piece which belies the hard work and clockwork precision that is needed to pull off this sort of show.
Highly inventive and witty, it is Gilbert & Sullivan meets Agatha Christie meets Monty Python. It is the very model of a modern major mash up. Another triumph for Charles Court Opera.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Bill Knight
Pleasance Theatre until 2nd July
Other shows reviewed at this venue this year: