Gilbert & Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited: a show not to be missed

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, Utopia, Limited: National Gilbert & Sullivan Company’s Chrous and Orchestra / John Andrews (conductor). Opera House, Buxton, 5.8.2022. (RJW)

King Paramount (Ben McAteer) with Mr Goldbury (Paul Featherstone) © Charles Smith

Director – Jeff Clarke
Choreographer – Jenny Arnold
Scenic designer – Elroy Ashmore
Lighting – Matt Cater
Costumes – Wanda D’Onofrio, Janet McGeown, Sue Mackrell, Nic Hamblin

King Paramount – Ben McAteer
Scaphio – Robert Gildon
Phantis – Giles Davies
Calynx – Cairán Walker
Lord Dramaleigh – Tim Walton
Captain Fitzbattleaxe – Anthony Flaum
Captain Corcoran – Stephen Godward
Mr Goldbury – Paul Featherstone
Sir Bailey Barre – Cameron Mitchell
Mr Blushington – Aiden Edwards
Princess Zara – Monica McGhee
Princess Nekaya – Georgina Stalbow
Princess Kalyba – Meriel Cunningham
Lady Sophy – Katharine Taylor-Jones
Phylla ­– Phoebe Smith
Melene – Rachel Speirs
Salata – Juliet Montgomery

The highlight of this year’s Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Buxton (and at Harrogate) is undoubtedly the rare presentation of Utopia, Limited. This lesser known of the G&S canon was the 13th in their collaboration. When provided in a lavish production by a really competent director, as it is here, it is a show not to be missed.

The National Gilbert & Sullivan Company decided to engage Jeff Clarke of the well-known Opera della Luna Company to mount this exclusive production for a handful of performances, with the instruction ‘Don’t stint yourself; do it well’ (as Pooh Bah would have said). The risk paid off handsomely because everyone leaving the theatre raved over this musical triumph and the quality of staging.

The music was in safe hands with Sally Fletcher and her magnificent Festival Orchestra of long standing. John Andrews conducted to perfection and the cast responded with energy and commitment.

Gilbert & Sullivan Festival’s Utopia, Limited © Charles Smith

The characters were well rehearsed and fitted their parts admirably. Ben McAteer was a powerful, despotic king (a part he played last year in Scottish Opera’s semi-staged production). I found that the two Wise Men came across better here than in other productions with their more meaningful reading of Gilbert’s book to help a better understanding of the plot. An excellent overture (recently composed by John Owen Edwards) was added since none was ever written by Sullivan. The singing was strong throughout and it would be unfair to single out principals for their excellent contribution.

I liked the fun Jeff Clarke poked at the elegant Drawing Room ceremony by having a mischievous King’s daughter tease the Court debutants by halting their retreating gown trains after presentation to the King, firstly with a foot and later with a heavy plant pot put on the train. When the ‘respectable’ English advisers eventually vacate the Island their departure is convincingly shown by servants seen lugging heavy travelling trunks across the stage, the last of which has its bottom break to allow stolen treasures to spill out, ‘… as might happen in England’. There were many lovely touches like this to savour so it would be a pity for any G&S lover to miss out on this comic opera.

The spectacular and varied Utopian costumes suited the characters, the women’s gowns and wigs looking particularly attractive when contrasted with authentic Horseguards uniforms and helmets. A nice touch was the wearing of characteristic Moroccan ‘Aladdin’ shoes with curled-up toes. Jeff Clarke told me that he remembered Percy Anderson’s stunning costume designs for the 1893 production and so worked hard to replicate their quality here.

A word of mention should be made about the excellence of the visual aspects of production. For the D’Oyly Carte’s final staging of Utopia, Limited in their 1975 Centenary season, their designer Peter Rice chose one set to represent both acts and this worked well; the same is done here. Remarkable is the excellence of Matt Cater’s lighting to transform the setting for each act so that they look so different. Also, his sensitivity in accurately picking up music cues for mood changes is much appreciated. The Act I curtain rose on Elroy Ashmore’s equatorial palace lounge, with Lloyd Loom chairs around tables and the space interrupted by convincingly-tropical slender palm trees splashed by streams of ‘hot’ sunlight. The effect rightly brought applause before the chorus started singing. Despite using the same set, Act II looked vastly different, where a different oriental appeal was given by clusters of ornate hanging lanterns set against a starlit black night sky and cross-lit by moonlight to transform the palm trees. How nice it was to see scenic excellence complementing the music, as full sets are rarely provided nowadays because of expense. When Utopia was first staged the decor and costumes amounted to an extraordinary £7,200 to provide spectacular sets — an awful lot of money to spend in 1893.

This was a memorable performance that the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival should be congratulated for. Catch it if you can at Harrogate on 14 and 20 August.

Raymond J Walker

1 thought on “Gilbert & Sullivan’s <i>Utopia, Limited</i>: a show not to be missed”

  1. A very good review that did justice to this excellent production. I first saw Utopia
    in the D’oyly Carte 1975 production when I was just sweet 17. The peels of laughter
    which greeted the Christy Minstrel scene I can still recall after all these years.

    If anything this production was it’s equal and probably better. There was some
    judicious pruning of text. No one really missed getting rid of Tarara the ‘Public
    Exploder’ who is supposed to get the humour off and away at the start and is quite
    beyond redemption.

    Excellent singing throughout and it was a nice idea to divide the song about the ideal
    English girl between Goldbury and Dramaleigh. It worked very well and the actor who
    played the latter (Tim Walton) made him for once a real character in his own right.

    Thanks for your review Mr Walker and I look forward to reading your book on D’Oyly
    Productions/stagings (which I am told I shall be getting for Christmas!).

    Best, David Kenrick


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