Iolanthe - An all male romp

Iolanthe - An all male romp

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An all male romp of an Iolanthe

Gilbert and Sullivan go way-out camp with talent

Seldom do you see an audience on its feet, bursting with applause, but last night’s all-male production of Iolanthe at the Arts Theatre finished with a rapturous roar of delight. This Victorian satire (it came out in 1882) has a roistering fun chorus to lift the spirits. And although the object of the play's scorn can be a bit obscure these days, the abundance of class conflict make a contemporary group of theatre goers laugh; one raucous ensemble number featured a cameo appearance from Queen Elizabeth II herself complete with county headscarf and a comatose Price Phillip shrouded in tartan overcoat beside her.

The genre is Opera Buffa, a comic musical first made popular by John Gay in the 18th century with his Penny Opera tracking the outrageous antics of Londoners on the make. Gilbert and Sullivan’s massive run of block-bcsting hits in the late part of the 19th century took up the tradition – Iolanthe was the fourth in a run of sell-out shows. Gilbert and Sullivan, the sharp-eyed satirist and the tunesmith with an eye on serious music, were the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice of their day and everything they touched turned to gold. They had the establishment of England in their sights and every little joke had Victorians rolling in the aisles. Last night’s audience could have stepped straight out of London’s Savoy theatre in 1882 where Iolanthe was first performed, so thrilled were they with the production.

Which is surprising since many of the allusions have vanished and the little jibes at authority are now less barbed in an era without the deference of their day. Lord Chancellors, Wards of Court, judicial buffoonery have all gone their way as anything to get excited about.

Yet Sasha Regan’s cast fit snugly into the improbable plot and try to bring a bright contemporaneity to what might have been a dated piece.  

Iolanthe is a banished fairy and the opera opens with the fairies tripping and dancing round in their ring, mourning her absence. They plead with the Queen of the Fairies to return her. Her sin has been grievous. She married a mortal  -- and had a child. Strephon – and now endures banishment for her crimes.

Restored to her community of sprites her son becomes the problem. He is half fairy (cue many jokes about his being fairy only above the belt and mortal below). Strephon, a shepherd, has fallen for lovely Phyllis and wants to wed her that very day. But Phyllis has seen him with his immortal mother who only looks 17 and is suspicious. In her fury she is tempted to marry into the aristocracy and has a couple of luke warm suitors on the go. Needless to say, all is resolved and everyone is re-united; the new law enacted forbids anyone NOT marrying a fairy to banishment and everyone takes on a pair of wings and ascends from the House of Lords to everlasting bliss.

The cast are vigorous, athletic – often balletic – but why all men? And the ‘fairy’ plot leads to endless mincing and posing, knowing looks and camp tantrums – the kind of stuff which appeared to vanish with ‘Are you being served?’ Or as one theatre-goer remarked: 'I spent my adolescence with the radio tea ‘Julian and my friend Sandy'. That was forty years ago and I don’t really want to re-visit it now.'

If there is a theme in this whimsical plot surely it is the antipathy between Fairyland its Queen and her girls and the oppressive maleness of the Courts with their dry attorneys and paid-off Members of Parliament? To iron it out with a single-sex casting loses the tension between the brittle fragility of the self important legal world of men and the feminine Fairy force who ultimately win out.

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