Review by Sam Waite
The layman's understanding of opera would involve that oft-mentioned fat lady singing her lengthy, depressing arias in a four hour event without spoken dialogue or any moments of brevity to help them get through it. However, the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan serve as a reminder that opera can be under three hours, have characters speak as well as sing, and most importantly that it can be very, very funny – a prime example being Ruddigore, now playing at Wilton's Music Hall.
Ruddigore finds its players in Rederring, Cornwall, the only town in the land with a team of professional bridesmaids – dressed and ready six hours a day for any wedding that should arise. These maids are in distress, as every man in town is vying for the hand of Rose Maybud, so until she chooses a suitor to wed it seems unlikely anyone else will marry either. Soon trapped in a love triangle between foster brothers, Rose’s choice is made easier when one man is revealed as the rightful Baronet of Ruddigore, having faked his own demise in order to leave a curse on the title to his younger brother.
The story is as ludicrous as it sounds here, more so in fact. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote with a keen awareness of the silliness of the stories they were telling, and this cast are more than up to the knowing stupidity of their roles. Madeline Robinson is a delight as Rose, her rich soprano and sharp comedic timing complimenting one another as her etiquette-based neuroses stir up conflict. Robin, her dorky, tirelessly kind suitor, is brought to life by Joe Winter, who brings to the role a charming boyishness, and naïveté which becomes hilarious when his true identity is revealed as his ineptitude at being a “Bad Baronet” comes to light.
Foster-brother and closest friend Richard is played by the magnetic, suave Kieran Parrott. With a strong tenor and a knack for balancing the more traditional presentation of the handsome matinee and a variation more resembling a geezer down the pub, Parrott immediately wins over the audience. Likewise, Mad Margaret, the long-suffering betrothed of Sir Despard, the villainous Baronet of Ruddigore, pulls off a similar balance – here, Margaret is simultaneously a threatening madwoman and a put-upon, sympathetic would-be lover. As for Despard himself, Peter Benedict makes for an imposing villain, before revelling in how comically kindhearted this “Bad Baronet” truly is.
Benedict, pulling double duty as performer and director, makes a strong dramatic choice in casting himself as the younger brother of the visibly-younger Winter. This helps to sell the toll the curse on Castle Ruddigore has taken on its Baronet. He also chooses to open the piece by presenting the run-down castle as a hotel, each of our main characters entering silently during the overture and checking in as a modern-day version of themselves. This not only helps to make the gathering of these characters more plausible and the the inexplicit 1800s setting more accessible, with each actor taking the stage with an idea of who they are already ingrained in their audience.
David Shields’ understated set allows for interpretation as to whether we are being taken through different parts of the town, or if all of the events are simply taking place in the main hall of Castle Ruddigore. The effect of an old, once-impressive castle is aided by blank picture frames hanging overhead – these are used to great effect in the second act as Tom Fitch’s video design brings to life the portraits provided by William Haynes, Fitch and Haynes’ work is impressive and brings smartly to life the supernatural elements relating to the cursed Baronet, but also makes it startlingly noticeable that the frames serve no real purpose during the first act.
I mean it purely as a commendation when I comment on the simplicity and bluntness of Alistair Lindsay’s lighting design. With heavy shadows in foreboding moments and stark red lights engulfing villains, Lindsay understands completely that Gilbert & Sullivan we're not about subtlety and well-aware of it. This same knowledge is clear in Adam Haigh’s choreography – steps and turns are matched well to the stunning score, while the more balletic movements drew the odd chuckle by aiding the idea of Gilbert & Sullivan’s self-mocking approach to tropes of their time.
Gorgeously played and sung, thesis music and this story have landed in an ideal home at Wilton’s Music Hall. With a sharp understanding of the material clear from the first moments, and a willingness to have fun and introduce a small array of 21st century jokes (soup over paintings, modern politics, et al), the team behind this new production have crafter a charming and memorable evening at a charming and memorable venue.
Ruddigore plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until March 25th.
Tickets can be found at: www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/774-ruddigore
Photos by Mark Senior