“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.
“in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End”
It is worth remembering what a lasting impact the nineteenth century impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, had on London’s theatreland. Having brought Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert together he built the Savoy Theatre in order to stage their works. Later, in an attempt to establish more serious opera, Carte built the Royal English Opera House; which is now known as the Palace Theatre. Although it staged Arthur Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe”, none of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas ever made it onto the grand stage.
Sasha Regan’s all male “Pirates of Penzance” has enjoyed success for a decade now in the UK and Australia, its journey briefly interrupted by the pandemic. But in true buccaneering style, the company have grabbed the opportunity to plunder the West End, while many theatres are still sleeping, and seize the accolade of presenting the first Gilbert and Sullivan work to play in D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built theatre. And it deserves it.
The company don’t take the stage by storm. Instead, they use the weapons of wit, joy, irreverence, humour and harmony. It is perhaps one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most accessible comic operas, containing some of Sullivan’s most recognised music. Gilbert’s libretto has a simplicity and clarity which matches Regan’s staging. What will lodge in the memory for a long time is how the production transports you to a bygone era. The space is vast, even by West End standards, but the cast fill it completely with a stripped back set, one piano, a bunch of finely tuned singers, and not a single microphone between them. Nothing is forced either. Musical Director Richard Baker’s piano notes and arpeggios float across the auditorium carrying the voices with them to the far corners of the theatre. Lizzi Gee’s superb choreography may have been devised with smaller spaces in mind, but the physicality of the ensemble make no apologies and they pull it off.
Set during Queen Victoria’s reign on the coast of Cornwall, the story concerns the dutiful and soft-hearted Frederic who, having reached his twenty-first year has been released from his apprenticeship to a band of equally benevolent pirates. He promptly falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of the very model of a modern Major-General. Yet he soon learns that he was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so only has a birthday every four years. Which makes him only five years old, meaning he has another sixty years to serve. What ensues is a gorgeous romp through the themes of courage, duty and honour.
Alan Richardson, as Mabel, stuns us with his soaring falsetto. But it is unfair to single him out, the entire ensemble is pitch perfect, from bass through to soprano. It is credit to the cast that at no point does it really occur to us that we are watching men dressed as women. There is plenty of chest and facial hair on view, but such are the nuances, mannerisms and finesse of the cast, we are convinced. This is not high camp; it is not drag; it is character acting at its finest. Tom Senior’s Frederic is just as convincing, and you believe in the chemistry between the actors. Leon Craig’s hapless nurse, Ruth, is a master of comedy, vying for the laughs with David McKechnie’s Major-General. The accolades, though, belong to the entire team and given space they would all receive a special mention.
The continued success of the all-male “Pirates of Penzance” is undoubtedly on dry land; and this stunning production feels completely at home in the West End. Yes, maybe it might not have made it there in normal times (though I like to think it would), but we can certainly hoist the flag to celebrate one of the most delightful, innovative, funny and musically rich interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan.