Sasha Regan's all-male Iolanthe. Photo: Kay Young Photography
Richmond Theatre was the perfect setting for a comic opera which began with an excited group of young men exploring a dark theatre by torchlight; the backstage setting (by Stewart Charlesworth) was totally at home in this beautiful Matcham theatre, as was Sasha Regan’s all male version of Iolanthe. These G&S productions from the Union Theatre are regular visitors to the Richmond Theatre and attract a very diverse audience, from enthusiastic young friends of the cast to older and only slightly bemused G&S aficionados.
As always with these productions, all the parts are played by men but with only suggestions of female dress and with character deftly sketched as much by accessories as the costumes themselves; hats, scarves, dressing gowns and assorted improvised wings proved to be just one inventive aspect of Sasha Regan’s glorious production, itself greatly enhanced by Mark Smith’s witty choreography. As usual, musical accompaniment was from a single piano, with MD Richard Baker not only playing and conducting but turning his own pages at impressive speed as well: at times it was almost as interesting to watch him as those on stage (but not quite).
For those of us of a certain age, gender and school background, there is something very familiar about the setup; I am sure I was not the only audience member who enjoyed appearing in all-male G&S at boys’ schools in the 1950s to 1970s or so; although I do not remember those fairies tripping quite as lightly hither and thither, or singing anywhere near so well.
Performances, as ever, were finely judged and ranged from (slightly) subtle to full-on camp, but always with character in mind. It was a young cast, and Alastair Hill’s sprightly Lord Chancellor was a good few decades younger than those usually playing this part, and his performance was accordingly energetic. Richard Carson was a strong-voiced and strong-armed hero opposite Joe Henry as a shy, convincing and sweetly-sung Phyllis. Adam Pettit and Michael Burgen managed to bring much more diversity than is usual to Tolloller and Montararat, and Christopher Finn was the authoritative Iolanthe, making the character much more interesting than she can sometimes seem.
The second act began with a front-cloth setting for Private Willis’s lament, Duncan Sandilands almost as impressive here as when he later performed endless press-ups on stage and then got up and spoke without, apparently, being out of breath. And finally, the fairies… Many of them of course, but led by Union G&S regular Richard Russell Edwards as a Fairy Queen with glasses on chains and resplendent in fox furs, and channelling more than a hint of Hinge and Bracket but with added determination. As her assistants Celia and Leila, Dominc Harbison and Lee Greenaway drew the eye whenever they appeared and provided a masterclass in owning the stage.
Although in recent years the all-male G&S shows from the Union have seemed to come round rather too frequently, this production, originally seen in 2010, shows them at the height of their game. It is a gloriously funny and very well sung evening, featuring some of Sullivan’s best music and Gilbert’s most inventive topsy-turveydom, and is a very successful homage to a comic opera which still entertains when given such loving attention. A winner.