Matlock brings Tudor England to Life at Buxton International G&S Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom German, Merrie England: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Matlock Gilbert and Sullivan Society / Melanie Gilbert (conductor), The Pavilion Theatre, Buxton, Derbyshire, 28.7.2012 (RJW)

This show is not from the pens of either Gilbert or Sullivan, yet it has strong G&S connections. It was produced at the Savoy Theatre and its librettist, Basil Hood had previously provided the books for Sullivan’s The Rose of Persia (1899) and The Emerald Isle (1901). Furthermore, Edward German completed Sullivan’s The Emerald Isle which was left unfinished at his untimely death in 1900.

It has been some time since we last heard of a revival of Merrie England but this year at least three societies are known to have been preparing Jubilee performances. I had forgotten how good the score was until this reassessment came along. Although Hood’s plot is somewhat contrived, his intention to work in a form of spectacle is understandable and works. The presence of quaint ‘Derry down derrys’ and ‘Hey nonny noes’ bring a flavour of Elizabethan England to mind with rustic charm that only Gilbertian English could invent!

Matlock, a 20 year old group, are to be congratulated on their production which has both stage appeal and good singing. Max Taylor painstakingly recreation of a new orchestral score from a vocal score cleverly matches much of German’s original style of orchestration. An excellent orchestra under Melanie Gilbert did a competent job in supporting the singers.

The plot concerns a mislaid love letter from Raleigh to a maiden, Bessie, which is shown to the Queen. In love with Raleigh, the Queen is furious at this unexpected jilting and shows her displeasure. A group of villagers are crowning their Rose Queen when they hear that Queen Elizabeth I is coming by. They decide to entertain her with a masque of ‘Robin Hood’ at Herne’s Oak. The villagers hastily condemn a witch amongst them, called Jill. In appearance she is a white witch with a white cat to replace the traditional black variety. Matlock’s use of a robotic cat was ingenious with realistic movements that added much interest to the scene. The accused Jill is latterly pardoned by the Queen, as also is Raleigh’s misdirected love.

A colourful, cheery and strong opening chorus scene was vibrant and set a good pace for the performance to follow. All sang well and were nicely toned in this well-rehearsed production. Raleigh carried an influential presence and took command from the time of his first tuneful number, ‘Every Jill should have her Jack’ while the Queen lived up to her regal dignity when she appeared in her magnificent gown. Her drifting legato in the romance, ‘O, peaceful England’ was delightful and sung with sincerity. An energetic and bustling Essex exerted a strong stage presence both in singing and acting: he came across well in his support for the Queen when she tired from the masque. Bessie and Jill sang convincingly and sweetly yet in spoken lines did not always project sufficiently to reach the back of the auditorium. I felt that the orchestra had not had the chance to adjust to the Pavilion’s acoustics which can easily swamp the singer.

Neat, colourful and well-fitting costumes; garlands with purposeful stage business; and sensible lighting added to the audience’s enjoyment to make this a show to be remembered.

Raymond J Walker