The plot is convoluted, the characters, absurd, the rhymes tenuous at best. What else have we come to expect from Gilbert and Sullivan? Iolanthe tells the tale of a group of fairies and how they clash with the House of Lords when love is involved. Of course.
The performers are careful with their diction and every word is audible, which is no small feat with lines such as: “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is taboo’d by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in, without impropriety.” W.S. Gilbert seemed to relish giving his actors tongue-twisters challenging even for the most loose-lipped linguist.
Kate Morris’ artistic vision exaggerates the (surprisingly many) parallels between the opera, written in 1882, and the modern political world. A chorus scene in the House of Lords is staged as a press conference; various particularly prescient references to Liberal-Conservatism (as absurd as it sounded then) provide the inspiration for the colour scheme, blue and yellow for the peers and green for the fairies. Most of the actors, however, seem somewhat like they are dressed for a wedding, in florid waistcoats and spangly dresses. Shannon McClintock, Verity Thomas and Katy Willett play three fairies, drawing their portrayal from the sort of stock fey tradition – squealing, giggly and a little bit lecherous, like an upper-class, man-eating Tinkerbell.
Ben Lewis and Erik Holum are particularly entertaining as the indistinguishable Earl of Mountararat and Earl of Tolloller. They bring a great deal of pomp and toff to the performance and, whether singing a solo or acting at the back of a scene, the pretence never falters. They could not be more over-the-top in their acting, but this is necessary for the highly caricatured roles they are playing and provides plenty of comedy. One plot detail sees them forgoing a duel for the sake of their friendship; this sort of thing is where the modern parallels fail. As amusing as it would be, it seems unlikely that we would ever see Lord Sugar and Lord Mandelson fighting to the death, although ITV2 are interested in a similar format for their next hit reality show, “Punch a Peer” or something.
Mountararat’s and Tolloller’s four-part harmonies with Gess Howarth as fairy Phyllis and Huw Davies as Private Willis are stirring and note-perfect and the fact that they are singing does not detract from their acting.
The show is only semi-staged, so the choruses are seated for the entire performance and accompaniment is provided by two pianos rather than an orchestra, but there is still plenty going on in the production.
Everything about the show is overblown, snooty and completely ridiculous. It is almost pantomime, and we’re not even in December yet. But there is little else to do of an evening that can provide political satire, pleasant music, silliness and magic in one sitting.