Review by Raphael Kohn
Opera’s often thought of as snooty, elitist and posh. The ENO’s latest offering, a revival of their 2018 production of Iolanthe by possibly the most famous opera-writing team in all of British musical history, is none of that. Packed to the brim with gags galore, immeasurable innuendo and heaps of humour, this is comic opera with the emphasis on the comedy.
I have zero shame in loving Gilbert and Sullivan. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a silly, campy opera taking aim at political figures of its day (since long gone and often forgotten) revived to bring new meaning to old jokes, set to jaunty, if repetitive and similar operatic tunes, really is a fun way to spend an evening. Iolantheis probably one of their funniest – especially in the hands of the right director – in today’s world, a biting satire about the Houses of Parliament. And fairies. And fairies getting into Parliament. And if that sounds ridiculous, you’ll have to buy a ticket and discover it for yourself.
The secret to a good Gilbert and Sullivan revival in the 21st century is the art of reinventing the text to amuse the modern audience and direct the work so that it feels fresh and funny even today. Director Cal McCrystal does just that, bringing out the campness to perfection – probably camper than a drag show at times. It is a show about fairies after all. To this he adds puppetry, a whole host of animal statues that make their way onto the stage at seemingly random times to send the whole Coliseum into fits of laughter, and heaps of slapstick comedy.
Not just getting laughs from the physical comedy (although there is much of that), McCrystal gives the adults in the room a good deal of innuendo to enjoy. And it’s fabulous, regularly drawing chuckles out of the audience, half of whom are shocked and the other half having too much of a good time to really care. Add to that well-aimed shots at political figures (caricatures of three figures who were in power until recently make appearances) and some clear political messaging taking aims at the Conservative party and even at Arts Council England after their recent funding cut to the ENO and suggestion of a relocation, and a truly funny production is born.
The political satire picks up significantly in the second half, while the first is focussed mainly on exposition and fairy jokes. Perhaps the physical comedy became slightly excessive at this point – as the story develops more and delves deeper into the political aspect rather than the fantastical fairy storytelling, the repeated slapstick moments began to sag slightly. But these are tiny problems in an otherwise slick and pacy production
The music throughout is excellent – the classic score played brilliantly by the ENO orchestra under the baton of conductor Chris Hopkins. Of course, the star of the show is the voices onstage, and there are some absolutely stunning performances to be enjoyed. Samantha Price’s Iolanthe brings out dimensions in the character I’ve not previously seen, while John Savournin, playing the Lord Chancellor revels in his campness (and absolutely delights in a moment of audience interaction), paired with his powerful and bold baritone voice. The pair of Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne as Strephon (Iolanthe’s son) and Phyllis (his lover) respectively are a genuinely believable and engaging couple.
But taking possibly the funniest role is fire safety fanatic Captain Shaw, performed by Clive Mantle. Not just breaking but destroying the fourth wall, his pre-show announcements before the first and second act, delivered more like microphone-less stand-up than theatrical performance, are a delight to watch and sets the tone of the production just right.
It's a treat for the eyes as well as the ears, with Paul Brown’s fantastical fairyland sets giving way to some tremendous setpieces as the opera progresses. Despite the first few looking a bit cheap, like flat cardboard cutouts in fairyland, the added dimensions of the story as humans arrive are brought out through amazing three-dimensional sets that quite literally burst out onto the stage. Coupled with the clever use of a trapdoor (though, it broke slightly on the night I was in attendance and almost destroyed the entire floor of the set, though was fixed professionally and smoothly in a brief show stop, well managed by the stage managers), it forms an intelligently-designed world in which we feel welcome and engaged throughout.
Once again, if you think that opera isn’t for you, the ENO is here to prove you wrong. Appealing to everyone of any age and experience with opera, Iolanthe is a gorgeously performed camp treat – I dare say one of the funniest nights I’ve had in London in years, yet another example of the value of these institutions in bringing truly brilliant work to London’s stages.
Iolanthe is being performed at the London Coliseum until 25th October 2023. Tickets can be purchased from https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/
Photos by Craig Fuller