“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.
“It is a truly wonderful mash-up. Joyful and triumphant.”
‘Tis the season to be silly. That’s all you need to know really. I could end the review here, but my editor wouldn’t be too happy. He’d tear it up and tell me to start again. Which is exactly what Charles Court Opera have done with the original Christmas story. Everything you thought you knew about the Nativity is lying crumpled in the wastepaper bin. They call “The Nativity Panto” an ‘adaptation’ of the tale that sparked the festive season. I call it a demolotion. Or deconstruction maybe. And then they lost the blueprint. Undaunted, however, writer John Savournin and composer/lyricist David Eaton have picked up the pieces from their blurred memories and sharp imaginations to recreate a show that is inventive, hilarious, irreverent, magical, surreal and, to use Pythonesque parlance, just downright silly.
Joseph and Mary Christmas live in the North Pole. Joseph is a workaholic toymaker. All Mary wants for Christmas is a baby. A holy holly bush grants her wish and miraculously she is bulging and ready to drop; a fact that Joseph is ingenuously accepting of. Meanwhile the joy-sucking Jack Frost and his sidekick Snowflake threaten to spoil Christmas for everyone. From there the bizarre adventure begins, and the cast and audience have an absolute ball on the journey together. We rapidly stop trying to dodge the Christmas cracker jokes as innuendos crescendo and double-entendres thunder through the dialogue, and we let ourselves be swept along for the joyous ride. Rachel Szmukler’s gingerbread and candy set evolves with the action like clockwork, while Mia Wallden’s inventive and colourful costumes are the frosting on the cake.
Emily Cairns, Meriel Cunningham, Jennie Jacobs, Matthew Kellett and Catrine Kirkman all possess an energy and versatility that lifts the spirits and indelibly etches laughter lines onto even the most poker face that dares enter the auditorium. The beauty of pantomime is that it appeals to all ages with its mix of slapstick and adult humour. It is an artform that requires a high standard of stagecraft and talent, and this company have it by the sleighload. The five cast members deliver a blizzard of characters (you long to be a fly on the wall backstage to witness how they cope with the costume changes). None can be singled out as each performance is outstanding. Not that you can anyway – their flexibility with accents, expressions, impersonation and interpretation defies recognition as they dish up their feast of familiar faces. Characters we know and love but seen here in a completely different light. You never knew that Rudolph’s fear of flying stemmed from deep rooted self-image issues, did you? Or that the Three Kings could tango like there’s no tomorrow.
David Eaton’s music and lyrics feature original compositions and parodies of popular songs. The Spice Girls, A-ha, Barry Manilow and even David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, among others, provide the backing to Eaton’s humorously clever lyrics; interspersed with some quite beautiful song writing that never feels out of context. Eaton himself is on keyboards providing the musical accompaniment, with drummer Dave Jennings, who also adds some finely timed percussive sound effects. The eclecticism of the soundtrack is matched by the many references in the script, both biblical and contemporary, from King Herod to the Lion King. And pretty much everything in between. It is a truly wonderful mash-up. Joyful and triumphant.
Everything you thought you knew about the nativity is torn apart in this wondrous gift of a show, as the true origins are irreverently revealed. But I shall say no more. ‘Tis the season to be silly. That’s all you need to know really.