Review by Peter Brown
1 April 2011
First produced in 1882, 'Iolanthe' (or 'The Peer and the Peri') is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy Operas. It was the first to be performed at the (then) new Savoy Theatre, the first to be equipped with electricity which provided some illuminating effects to much audience approval.
Describing the plot to his friend, a gentleman sitting behind me said “It's all a bit bonkers, to be honest”. And indeed it is. The plot concerns a troupe of fairies whose strict rules provide for death should one of their number marry a mortal. Iolanthe, however, escaped the full wrath of the Fairy Queen when she married her mortal hubbie, but is sorely missed by her sister fairies and they persuade their Queen to revoke the punishment. Iolanthe has a 25-year-old son (fairy down to his waist and mortal below the belt) who wants to marry Phyllis, a ward of court. She can't marry without the consent of the Lord Chancellor, who is actually keen to have her as his own bride. So, with fairies interacting with peers in the House of Lords you can see why it might seem totally 'bonkers'.
To take matters further down that road, in this version all the parts are played by men. Although this is an inspired idea, in the wrong hands it could easily go over the top. But Sasha Regan's deft direction keeps everything boiling nicely without ruining the final dish and turning it into a gooey mess. Of course it's camp, but in an inoffensively humorous way, maintaining the spirit of the show and enhancing the comedy to the extent that some of it – particularly in the first half - is very funny indeed.
The show starts with what appears to be a bunch of schoolboys with torches rummaging around some kind of school hall and discovering props, costumes and an ancient copy of the play. In a jiffy, they're in costume and performing. That structure allows production designer, Stewart Charlesworth, the freedom to concoct a setting and costumes on a next-to-nothing budget to great effect. A large, old wardrobe is the main feature of the set, and an odd assortment of artefacts become costumes and props. For example, the peers' robes are mostly old-fashioned dressing gowns, and strings of conkers stand-in for chains of office and the like. It's all rather 'Boy's Own', but suitably ingenious and endearing, even if, and perhaps because, the girdles and lace panties which the fairies wear don't all match. But Alex Weatherhill's excellent Fairy Queen does get to wear a rather stylish fox fur.
The company singing is generally very good, and some is top-notch. Louis Maskell as Strephon has a remarkably powerful voice with a rich tone. Matthew James Willis as Lord Tolloller also possesses the kind of voice which wouldn't go amiss in the largest of concert halls, and I particularly enjoyed Christopher Finn's very fine solo in the second half which turned out to be both haunting and poignant. But the overall quality and professionalism on display here is quite remarkable, both in terms of the singing and acting. Alan Richardson's Phyllis is brilliantly understated, and Alex Weatherhill's wry Fairy Queen has all the qualities of a maternal aunt combined with pent-up sexual desire.
With a successful run at the Union Theatre late last year, the company has moved to Wilton's Music Hall near Tower Hill. Wilton's is a marvellous old theatre which is undergoing extensive renovations. When completed, it should prove to be a truly stunning venue, intimate but sufficiently large to encompass all kinds of interesting and inspiring work. Even so, it's a perfect setting for this inventive and well-directed approach to 'Iolanthe'. 'Boy's Own' it may be, but it's 'top of the class' stuff - the audience loved it and so did I!