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Following a series of successful hits which have cemented the ENO’s place as a major home for Gilbert & Sullivan’s works, Cal McCrystal’s Iolanthe returns to the London Coliseum for its first revival.
One of the most popular productions in the history of the ENO, the topsy-turvy masterpiece has been praised by critics and audiences alike. A brilliantly funny operetta, Iolanthe, features flying fairies, quarrelsome lords, and an ensemble of quirky characters gathering in a hilarious parody on British government, law and society.
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Some fairies, a fireman and a gigantic cow go into the Houses of Parliament to fix a broken wedding. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s essentially what the revival of the 2018 ENO production of Iolanthe is about. If someone thinks opera is about the dramatic nature of life or the unachievable research for true love, I’d encourage them to visit the Coliseum to experience a performance full of colour, energy, political parody, and visual jokes, just a few of the elements that form this version of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, directed by Cal McCrystal and well-performed by Chris Hopkins and the ENO orchestra.
Iolanthe was premiered in London in 1882, and yet, in 2023, the biggest laugh from the audience didn’t come from a gag or a certain gesture of the cast, but from Gilbert’s own words about every person who is born being “a little Liberal or either a little Conservative”, delivered perfectly by Private Willis (the most memorable character thanks to Keel Watson). The present relevance of the plot is one of the most remarkable virtues of the opera and its highlights came when the satire became brave and directly pointed at the current issues, such as ENO’s financial cuts or Boris Johnson’s questionable activities. However, those moments were only an exception in between too many repeated jokes (often “double entendres”) and slapstick episodes that would have been more effective and surprising by reducing slightly their number. For example, Strephon and Phyllis’ love duet in the first act, one of the most beautiful sections due to Marcus Fansworth and Ellie Laugharne’s performance, was musically neglected by the inclusion of a hilarious stage change in the background that, as funny as it was, would’ve been better placed somewhere else.
John Savournin proved why he is considered a G&S expert in his role as the Lord Chancellor, for he was sharp when interacting with the audience, accurate at singing at a rapid pace and amusing in his jokes. Still, he was vocally surpassed by other male characters, particularly by Ruari Bowen and Ben McAteer, who embodied Earl Tolloller and the Earl of Mountararat. The relationship between those characters was delightful to see and they provided us with first-quality singing that lacked in Savournin’s performance. In the feminine cast we need to acknowledge Catherine Wyn-Rogers as a robust and experienced Queen of Fairies and Ellie Laugharne, whose amazing voice was able to stand out even in loud sections and whose overall performance as the only character with ideas of her own is one of the best things the production has to offer.
It is a shame that ENO’s Iolanthe fell short and decided to place most of its efforts in pointless and childish jokes instead of a committed political and moral critique. Having said that, watching it will make everyone have a laugh and a great time, which considering all the negativity that surrounds us, is not to be underestimated.
If satire is as dead as many claim, a revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 Iolanthe seems an unlikely candidate to bring it back to life. Thankfully, Cal McCrystal’s ENO production focuses on the garish extremes that result from a collision between fairies and the House of Lords, creating a technicoloured jamboree filled with laughs and vivacious set pieces.
While there is an obvious power in restaging a 141-year-old opera and highlighting that much of what was then lampooned is still relevant, this does ask rather difficult questions of the satire itself. It made no difference then, so what is the merit in showing it now?
For director McCrystal, the answer is entertainment. Deftly applying his extensive comedic chops, he finds all manner of laughs in Iolanthe. The performers relish wringing the farce and humour out of its dramatic moments to a rapturous audience, playing the reveals with mock horror and surprise.
The tone is set immediately by conductor Chris Hopkins’ inventively faithful rendition of the magnificent overture. He musters the ideal combination of pomp and mischief throughout the production, allowing the woodwind section to shine through and Sullivan’s score to dictate the mood of the entire production. The Arcadian fairies, played as hyperactive party animals are introduced in a triumph of joyful madness and costumed in glamorous absurdity by Paul Brown.
As the returned-from-exile fairy Iolanthe (Samantha Price) brings news of her son Strephon’s thwarted desire to marry the mortal Phyllis, the curiously lower-key peers make a truly showstopping entrance. Played as entitled stuffed-shirts, the peers are far less fun than their ethereal counterparts, with the exceptions of suitors for Phyllis’ hand (baritone Ben McAteer’s Mountarat and tenor Ruairi Bowen’s Tolloller) and I was often waiting for the fairies to burst back on the scene.
Ellie Laugharne plays the sought-after Phyllis with an ambiguous mix of naivety and cynicism and stuns with her incredible vocal range. She’s ably matched by Marcus Farnsworth’s Strephon and both wear outstanding matching costumes reminiscent of your grandma’s finest china.
McCrystal’s injected bawdiness can produce uneven results. He delights in smuttiness and innuendos to great effect, but your overall enjoyment may hinge on your appetite for pantomime humour. From a sheep-fornicating stagehand to bared buttocks, there are bottom-of-the-barrel jokes galore. These accompany some extremely milquetoast political barbs toward the usual baddies, including Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries which take on some significance after Martyn Brabbins’ recent resignation over ENO funding cuts.
Beyond this though, Iolanthe has some truly majestic moments and revels in its own mania such as when the fairies and peers converge a psychedelic opium den buried in House of Lords to create an engrossingly debauched spectacle. The chorus excels with mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford and Petra Massey earning huge laughs as wild fairies.
It is perhaps in the moments where the production indulges in gleeful abandon that we see what Gilbert and Sullivan can do for us today. When the world remains paralyzingly unfair, maybe bacchanalia is all we can hope for.
Cal McCrystal, known for his extensive comedy directing and consulting, proves that he is a master of British humour with his production of ‘Iolanthe’ brimming with dirty jokes and slapstick comedy.
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan in 1882, this musical love story intended to demonstrate the absurdity of the British political system and royal family. The operetta explores a common theme in Gilbert’s work of men wreaking havoc within the tranquil world of women (fairies in this instance). The two first collaborated in 1871 and went on to create some of Britain’s best loved comedic operas, known for their creative chaotic worlds.
McCrystal is keen to point out the relevancy of these themes today despite the opera being over 140 years old. A Boris-looking character bumbles about on stage wearing the ex-PM’s signature messy hairdo and the word ‘horror’ is sung back to Strephon (consistently mispronounced as ‘strap-on’) when he suggests the Parliamentary Peers should pass a test before being given their title.
The show began with a conversational speech to the audience delivered by Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle), a Victorian-era fireman not part of the original opera. He introduces both acts and makes comedic appearances throughout, handing out yellow cards to those who present a fire hazard and at one point encouraging the audience to sing.
This is followed by the overture, a powerful piece of music with the occasional ding of the triangle alluding to the dainty world of fairyland that we are soon to enter. The conductor’s (Chris Hopkins) passion and musical authority were clear in each song, breathing life into Sullivan’s joyful notes.
The cast is exceptional, with everyone committing to character and singing with passion. Iolanthe (Samantha Price) and Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne) are particularly outstanding, both demonstrating great vocal control and projection.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s fairyland was recreated by Paul Brown through cut outs of illustrated flowers and trees, with a smokey mist emphasising the whimsical mood. The fairy’s costumes are spectacular and add to the visual feast. They pranced (and flew) on to the stage wearing sequin skirts, ridiculous hats, and glittery eyeshadow.
The action is often interrupted by various prop animals from flamingos and cows to unicorns that dispense beer. Perhaps at times the jokes are repetitive and steal the limelight from key songs, such as Phyllis’ and Strephon’s song ‘None Shall Part Us’, which is overshadowed by several large plastic sheep being thrusted on stage.
Due to the sheer amount of action and energy, as well as the maximalist design, this is the type of production you could watch 2-3 times over and still notice something you didn’t catch the first time. So, it’s very likely that I’ll be spotted in the audience at the next performance.
ENO’s post-pandemic Gilbert & Sullivan productions have had problems catching fire: last year presented us with a drab Yeomen that failed to lift its feet off the ground, a stark contrast to 2021’s overly silly and ultimately ridiculous Pinafore. The safe but satisfying choice to revive Cal McCrystal’s universally acclaimed 2018 production of Iolanthe is therefore quite welcome.
The story is classic Gilbert. The House of Lords collides with Fairyland, with Gilbert lampooning (rather affectionately, admittedly) as many political institutions he can along the way. Everyone desires the hand of Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery – every peer in the House, the Lord Chancellor himself, and Strephon, half-fairy son of full-fairy Iolanthe. A series of coincidences and hijinks ensues (what else?), and director Cal McCrystal imbues this silly, witty story with a captivatingly frenetic energy.
A proscenium arch within a proscenium arch suggests a metatheatrical quality to this production – a performance of a performance. The immediate impression is that of a Mischief Theatre-esque parody of somewhat shoddy amdram G&S, with incompetent stagehands, wardrobe malfunctions, and seemingly accidental slapstick. These gags come at a manic rate-of-fire and are laugh-out-loud funny, with none lasting beyond their welcome, but on closer inspection the production reveals a deep-rooted love for the original material and the theatre of its time.
Here is the heart of the production’s glorious success: the modernising touches keep today’s audiences entertained while maintaining the flavour of the original. McCrystal allows tender moments to remain tender; the reconciliation between Iolanthe and the Chancellor is genuinely touching. The late Paul Brown’s delightfully colourful and individual costumes are remarkably faithful in spirit to those used in Gilbert’s original 1882 production, down to the mock-Brunnhilde Fairy Queen. Every effect is possible with the techniques of the Savoy in the 1880s. The bite of Gilbert’s satirising pen is kept sharp with sight gags (the chorus features a Boris Johnson lookalike), while textual emendations are kept minimal. Thank heaven that we have a proper singer in the comic baritone role, with John Savournin delivering his patter with delectable diction as the Lord Chancellor, and that we do not have to trudge once more through the mire of ENO stunt-casting, which seemingly prides itself on being out of pitch and time.
Savournin is not alone in his excellence; it is impossible to fault a single principal. All are in fine voice and are, vitally, accomplished comedians. From the self-consciously melodramatic movements of Samantha Price’s Iolanthe, to the blithe charisma of Marcus Farnsworth’s Strephon, to the deliciously camp double act of Ruairi Bowen and Ben McAteer’s peers, every single cast member is a joy to witness. Conductor Chris Hopkins and the ENO Orchestra imbue what may be the finest of Sullivan’s Savoy scores with a light-footed nimbleness and contagious energy, with the abundant woodwind solos deserving particular praise.
A warm nostalgia for theatre of the old world runs beneath all the irreverent silliness, making it all the more delightful to throw oneself into the fun of this Iolanthe.
A model sheep humped offstage by a morph-suited chorus member. A hero affectionately nicknamed ‘strap-on.’ The repeated arbitrary entrances of a pantomime cow (had all the normal equine garb ran out??). It’s not exactly what one expects from a night at the opera. Director Cal McCrystal, however, entirely, incredibly, bizarrely makes it work.
Let’s go back a little. A creation of Victorian double act Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe follows lovers Phyllis and Strephon (see nickname above), as they seek the permission of Phyllis’ guardian (the Lord Chancellor, no less) to marry. However, he, awkwardly, rather fancies Phyllis too. Half-fairy (just go with it) Strephon naturally then brings in all of fairyland to help him out (you can take the man out of fairyland etc). Peers and pixies mingle with mutual delight.
This is not this production’s first rodeo, having been staged to roars of laughter and praise at the ENO back in 2018. It’s easy to see why we’ve all come back for more.
McCrystal and co-writer Toby Davies’ adapted libretto is delightfully porous, absorbing as many modern cultural references as possible for this 2023 iteration of Gilbert’s original words. What could have been a dull scene change before the tongue-twisting ‘The Nightmare Song’ is instead peppered with snippets of Mary Poppins’ ‘Step in Time’, a stagehand asking à la Nadine Dorries if they should take a piece of set to Manchester, and a startling moment of self-awareness with a brief lapse into Peter Grimes’ ‘Old Joe Has Gone Fishing.’ The Lord Chancellor’s Page (the almost show-stealingly funny Adam Brown) at one point breaks out into that G&S classic the ‘Major-General’s Song.’ A Boris lookalike chorus member cycles across the stage during curtain up for Act Two. These pops of unexpected intertextuality had the audience chuckling without fail.
ENO new kids and company old hands both shone. Conductor Chris Hopkins kept things moving while leads Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne’s voices soared above, consistently on-form even when tap dancing in clogs. Samantha Price (Iolanthe) expertly delivered the opera’s only moment of real sincerity with her touching Act II ballad, and Petra Massey as Fleta used her straight theatre acting with aplomb to carry the fairies’ performance as the lascivious, libidinous bunch G&S ask them to be.
At one point, John Savournin as the Lord Chancellor makes a joke, then laughs at his own humour with restrained amusement: ‘that’s very funny’, he remarks, self-satisfactorily. Those kinds of controlled, polite titters an audience might normally restrain themselves to in the theatre are what McCrystal asserted, back in 2018, that he wanted to shake the audience out of: ‘I hate that kind of laugh. I like people to bang their heads on the seats in front.’ Well, after seeing Iolanthe, I’m going to be nursing a head wound for days.
It was with trepidation that I attended this performance, having hitherto not enjoyed Gilbert and Sullivan. But I was blown away by the ingenuity and brilliance. This is Iolanthe at its most extravagant and accessible. The detail paid to every inch of this production is a testament and credit to Director Cal McCrystal. Refusing to rest on his laurels, he goes above and beyond to keep this revival visually stimulating and politically up-to-date. He includes hilarious references to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nadine Dorries that Gilbert himself would be proud of.
The orchestra and singers are in sublime harmony following Sullivan’s lively and varied musical motifs. Gilbert’s lyrics bounce across your mind in 6/8 long after the performance is over.
Act I opens with a fantastical portal to fairyland in the form of shimmering blue, green and purple strands of light. The set’s multiple floral and scenic backdrops make it appear as though the actors reside in a Gainsborough painting. Gifted costume designer Paul Brown further embellishes this by clothing lovers Strephon and Phyllis in sumptuous blue and white porcelain-esque patterns. They become like 18th century ornaments, going about bare foot as an outward symbol of their unpretentious origins.
Bursting through this pastoral idyll – literally destroying it – comes a huge steam train and carriage. This shocking industrial blot on the remains of an English landscape has the sole purpose of delivering with aplomb its cargo of peers, bishops and politicians.
Every character in this show was creatively embellished and enhanced so that together they brought maximum frivolity and delight. Thanks to choreographer Lizzie Gee, the fairies, in their riot of colours, use their whole bodies throughout in striking sensual gestures, making a vivid contrast to the static male mortals. Ruairi Bowen’s super-posh Earl Tolloller e-nun-ci-ates “position” carefully, showering a polite, handkerchief-wielding Chancellor with spit. Dame Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ voice has a deep richness that gives authority and menace to her fiery Fairy Queen. She channels her inner Brunhild by clothing herself in lightning and flying more than any other. John Savournin’s Chancellor has a superb emotional response to our eponymous heroine’s address, akin to holy adoration.
An unmissable, unsurpassable, unprecedented must-see show for G&S veterans and newbies alike. There is something for every generation to enjoy: delicious tap dancing, a divided house sing-a-long, cockney geezers, biting political satire, toilet humour, referee cards, mooning, public-school pet names, decadent snobbery, a spectacular rebound, excellent moustaches and vintage broadsheets. Not to mention Morecombe and Wise-like slapstick comedy gold, a light mockery of relationship ideals versus reality and one very appropriate Star Wars reference. Need I say more?
Cal McCrystal makes an extravagant return to the London Coliseum with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, featuring flamboyant garden fairies, winged members of Parliament, and a royal sheep in the audience box seats. Brilliantly funny and an all-round crowd-pleaser, Iolanthe is fairytale, political comedy, and love story all wrapped into one.
From curtain rise, audiences are faced with a visual spectacle, kudos to McCrystal’s spectacular production and costuming by Paul Brown. The whimsical allure of Fairyland makes an instant impression, as Renaissance-esque floral backdrops and vibrant Victorian pantomime dresses are comically juxtaposed stiff black suits and top hats from the House of Peers. Most impressive was the Peers’ explosive entrance scene, which introduced the pompous, crown-adorned lords with a life-sized train loudly tearing through the stage backcloth, sparks flying. On top of this, McCrystal does a fantastic job of keeping the production relatable to modern audiences, throwing in Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries lookalikes and referencing the season’s previous opera with a few lines of ‘Old Joe Has Gone Fishing’ from Peter Grimes.
Mezzo-soprano Samantha Price sparkles in the titular role of Iolanthe, offering a perfectly balanced vocal performance of theatrical gracefulness and heartfelt emotion. Queen of the Fairies, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, delivers a riveting debut, stealing the spotlight with her point-breasted metal chestplate and fire-shooting sceptre as she nonchalantly pours herself a pint from a unicorn’s horn.
The couple at the heart of the story, Arcadian shepherds Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) and Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne) form a peculiar picture with their matching, porcelain-print fitted suit and gown; equally blond, barefoot, and unsettlingly cheery. Clive Mantle, an ingeniously hilarious addition to the production, plays the fourth-wall-breaking, intermission-hosting Captain Shaw of the London Fire Brigade, quick with his light-hearted mocking of the opera and one-sided banter with conductor Chris Hopkins.
The fairy ensemble, a visual symphony of dramatic song and dance, brings the whimsical picture of Fairyland to life with W.S. Gilbert’s clever libretto and Lizzi Gee’s mesmerisingly playful choreography. Perhaps it is inevitable, then, that the Lord Chancellor (John Savournin) and his House of Peers would find their less colorful numbers outshined by the kaleidoscopic theatrics of the fairy court.
Iolanthe prides itself on being an operetta that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a rarity in the highbrow sophistication of the opera form. Its slapstick humour and bright-coloured aesthetics are unapologetically cheesy, inviting audiences to join in the fun with the Lord Chancellor’s singalong parts (“When I went to the Bar”) and Captain Shaw’s comic interaction with the members seated in the box during intermission. More West End musical than sharp political commentary, Iolanthe makes its mark as another Gilbert and Sullivan comedic hit, a must-see in all its incandescent glory.