English National Opera revives their uproarious Iolanthe: an undeniable smash hit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe: Soloists, Chorus of English National Opera (chorus director Martin Fitzpatrick), Orchestra of English National Opera / Chris Hopkins (conductor). London Coliseum, 5.10.2023. (JR)

Fairy Queen (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) and Private Willis (Keel Watson) © Craig Fuller

Director – Cal McCrystal
Designer – Paul Brown
Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell
Lighting revived by – Ian Jackson-French
Choreographer – Lizzi Gee
Sound designer – Dominic Bilkey

Iolanthe – Samantha Price
The Lord Chancellor – John Savournin
Fairy Queen – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Phyllis – Ellie Laugharne
Strephon – Marcus Farnsworth
Earl Tolloller – Ruairi Bowen
Earl Mountararat – Ben McAteer
Celia – Llio Evans
Leila – Bethan Langford
Fleta – Petra Massey
Private Willis – Keel Watson
Page – Adam Brown
Captain Shaw – Clive Mantle

Flying fairies, drunken Lords and an ensemble of quirky characters come together in an absolutely hilarious parody of British government, law and society. The plot centres around the fairy Iolanthe who married a mortal and was sent into exile by the Fairy Queen, a warning to all those cultures who admonish those who ‘marry out’. Her son Strephon (half mortal, half fairy) wants to marry a shepherdess and a Ward of the Chancery Court, Phyllis, who is ignorant of his origins. The Lord Chancellor intervenes, trying to capture Phyllis for himself but ultimately, when he turns out to be Iolanthe’s ex-husband, to change the law so the two young lovers can marry, after all.

The English National Opera premièred this Cal McCrystal production in 2018, so now – post-Covid and with the Arts Council sword of Damocles still suspended above the London Coliseum stage – it is a perfect time to entertain a large audience and fill the coffers.

The sets and costumes (by the late Paul Brown) are glorious and spectacular; the multi-coloured fairies in the mould of Cicely Mary Barker’s ‘Flower Fairies’. Various animals abound, ducks, a unicorn, a horse, a cow, a flamingo, all playing their part. Comedy director Cal McCrystal brings a high level of humour and especially slapstick to the stage. I had a smile on my face for the whole evening and enjoyed plenty of belly laughs. One particular highlight was the spitting image of Boris Johnson on his bicycle with a Nadine Dorries look-a-like trying to gain access, unsuccessfully of course, to the House of Lords. Several comedy actors greatly aided the humour: Clive Mantle as Captain Shaw, the Chief of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (he was actually at the very first performance), who introduced the show with great wit and expert delivery. Petra Massey was eye-catchingly funny throughout as a naughty fairy, Adam Brown a perfect fool of a page.

Singing was fine across the board, with one exception which I will come to. Welsh mezzo-soprano Samantha Price in the title role fitted the bill to a tee, veteran Catherine Wyn-Rogers still capable of full volume and a rich lower register. Ellie Laugharne was a winsome Phyllis, a mite underpowered and struggling with the leaps to those horribly challenging top notes (I speak as one former treble who, at boys-only school, sang without embarrassment the role of Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, and can still remember the top E♭6). Marcus Farnsworth delivered a strong baritone in the role of Strephon. Both Earls hit the spot – Ben McAteer (Mountararat) sang a lusty and jingoistic ‘When Britain ruled the waves’ and has all the makings of a future Lord Chancellor and tenor Ruairi Bowen (Tolloller) proves operetta is the equal of opera with a very refined voice and accent. Keel Watson as Private Willis was almost the star of the show with his fine acting, accent and singing – he fully entered the spirit of the show.

I have, so far, omitted a mention of John Savourini. A G&S specialist he may be, but he took the whole of the first act to look and sound comfortable, indeed to make himself audible. Hopefully he will improve and settle as the run continues.

Chris Hopkins conducted with gusto. It has to be said that Iolanthe does not contain as many catchy tunes as other, better-known, G&S operettas but this was such an enjoyable production that we hardly noticed.

Witticisms abounded, including sexual innuendoes, naughty puns and double entendres, greatly entertaining the adults – the many children in the audience concentrating on the slapstick and lavatorial humour.

English National Opera’s Iolanthe Act I © Craig Fuller

The coup de théâtre in Act I was when the Lords make their first entrance on a life-size steam train crashing sensationally through the back curtain, lights blazing, chimney fuming, wheels screeching: applause fully deserved.

There are twelve more performances of joyful levity – don’t miss one if you can get to the London Coliseum. Take a child or grandchild – the ENO has an admirable scheme whereby there are free tickets available on every level of the theatre for all under-21s. Subject to availability, of course.

John Rhodes

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