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by on 18 February 2018

Marvellous Fun and Moving Poignancy: a Show for All 


by W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 7th April

Review by Eleanor Lewis

This season’s Iolanthe begins with an appearance in front of the curtain by the character Captain Shaw who was the real chief of the 19th century London Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a well-known character, famous for attending first nights all over town. Captain Shaw, a sharp performance by Clive Mantle, entertains the audience for a couple of minutes while apparently waiting for the company to be ready. He notes that the audience is “a real melting pot, we have both the middle classes and the upper middle classes”.


Gales of laughter from said audience, but it remains an issue. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre (2003-2015) in his recent biography Balancing Acts, talked about the pressing need to attract younger audiences and people who simply don’t go to the theatre. Without a new generation of fans, the live theatre will die. For ENO, blessed with less subsidy than it would like, but with a mission to bring quality opera to a wider audience, Iolanthe is a show for all.


I am delighted to tell you that the fairy portal on St Martin’s Lane is now open, but only for a short period. ENO’s Iolanthe runs at the London Coliseum until 7th April, so mums and dads, aunts and uncle, bring the children.

The production itself is marvellous. It made me happy. The late, and greatly missed, Paul Brown’s design is beautiful. A luxuriant floral bower, warmly illuminated by Tim Mitchell’s soft lighting, is the fairies’ home. The distinctly Victorian fairies are each individually costumed with the emphasis on wit over elegance. Yvonne Howard as the Fairy Queen is equipped with a star-spangled, twinkly gown and armour-plated conical bra, (you can imagine her bladed-wheeled chariot waiting offstage). She has a couple of pyrotechnic tricks which are swiftly thwarted each time by Captain Shaw briefly reappearing.


The peers enter via a huge steam engine which bursts through the stage backcloth spilling a mixture of noblemen as it rolls onstage. As might be expected there is a ‘Boris’ and a ‘Jacob’ amongst many other neatly observed characters. The first act closes with footlights gleaming on the assembled fairies with more warm, comforting lighting, it looks like a Victorian Christmas card.

What is magic though, is Cal McCrystal’s interpretation of this work. McCrystal directed the National’s hugely successful and painfully funny One Man Two Guvnors in 2011 and it is his rare talent for injecting precisely the right amount of anarchy into a production that he has brought to Iolanthe at the Coliseum. This comic opera, which was first performed in 1882 and last performed by ENO forty years ago, no doubt still works perfectly well when performed now as it was when written back then. W S Gilbert’s wit stands the test of time – indeed the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song in this production was performed as written – but Iolanthe also lends itself happily to McCrystal’s additions. In fact it bursts into full bloom. Appearing against the Gainsborough backdrop, or the floral bower or the House of Lords (with throne) there are: a random flamingo, a unicorn, a singing pantomime cow, and there is some ‘business’ involving inexpertly handled model sheep and a sweet, brief bare bottom. Purists, I suppose, will have had a fit of the vapours at the last sentence but it all works, it is very, very funny whilst at the same time performed with a level of skill that means the reunion between Iolanthe and her Lord Chancellor husband in Act II is poignant and genuinely moving.


In 2016, an additional non-singing role was created for comedian Chris Addison in The Royal Opera’s production of L’Etoile. Similarly, though not necessarily in additional roles, McCrystal has involved three non-singing actors in his Iolanthe: the previously mentioned Clive Mantle as Captain Shaw; Flick Ferdinando as Fleta the fairy and Richard Leeming as Page to the Lord Chancellor. Richard Leeming is almost a living Ronald Searle character as he throws himself around the stage bringing a highly effective commedia dell’arte element to the proceedings. Their inclusion, again, the product of an inspired artistic vision.


Ronald Searle-ish elements are present throughout. The House of Lords set for the second act morphs into a Lords’ common room where the peers are all harassed and discombobulated by the fairies, occasionally flying across the stage. It’s very St Trinians, and/or Evelyn Waugh’s feckless journalists in Scoop. It’s very difficult to put your finger on – or to recreate – but very British.


Tim Henty conducts with relish. The sound of a full orchestra playing Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music as it was meant to be heard and giving the voices on stage a high platform from which to soar is glorious. The ENO chorus look as if they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. Ellie Laugharne and Marcus Farnsworth as Phyllis and Strephon are endearing and childlike as the young lovers, torn apart and then reunited, in their matching Spode blue and white Arcadian shepherd outfits. Andrew Shore as Lord Chancellor is unsurprisingly good, he is a charismatic stage presence, and Samantha Price as Iolanthe is both touching and funny.


Personally, I could have lived without the small tap/clog routine – I think because the shoes made it clear something was going to happen when everything else was random. This was the only issue I could find with this fabulous and highly recommended production.

Where the purists are concerned, I should mention that in a box to my right, a child aged about eight and dressed in fairy wings and a small tiara loved the whole thing, she bounced up and down to the music and laughed in all the right places. She is the next generation.

Eleanor Lewis
February 2018

Photography by Clive Barda



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