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The Yeoman of the Guard

by on 4 November 2022

Jibe and Joke

The Yeoman of the Guard

by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W.S. Gilbert

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 2nd December

Review by Lottie Walker

The Yeomen of the Guard is arguably Gilbert and Sullivan’s most dramatic work and almost certainly their most moving.  The plot is a little less convoluted than much of their canon and the tale of impending execution, mistaken identity and strolling players (including a motley fool), all set within the walls of the Tower of London is reminiscent of Shakespeare.  All of which places it firmly in the 17th century.  It is difficult to imagine it staged in any other era.  So the ENO’s curtain raising BBC newsreel was greeted with no little excitement and a great deal of hopeful anticipation.  However, that excitement was short lived.  Director Jo Davies has placed this period piece somewhere in the middle of the 20th century and it does not sit well there.

Anthony Ward’s stark stage design is impressive and effective but the neat trick of using the White Tower is kept under wraps until Act Two, which makes the first act somewhat one dimensional.  Costumes are equally low key, with post war austerity evident across the colour palette, only brightening a little with the entrance of strolling players Elsie Maynard, dressed in a Columbine-esque 50’s “swing dress” and Jack Point, vaguely reminiscent of Hi De Hi’s Ted Bovis in his ageing Teddy Boy get up.  Their entrance is greeted by a group of “youth” who appear to have stepped out of West Side Story

Which brings us to the choreography, which was a mixed bag of styles and often distracted from the main action.  Tap dancing guardsmen were the worst of these unnecessary distractions during Anthony Gregory’s beautiful rendering of Is Life a Boon in the lead role of Colonel Fairfax and, despite the 1950’s setting the nod to Jerome Robbins, was out of place.  However, the Irish dancing of John Molloy as Wilfred Shadbolt was inspired and a real highlight or the evening.

This production is struggling to find its way.   The music under the baton of Chris Hopkins is glorious.  The chorus singing and orchestra, as always at the ENO, are sublime and there are some beautiful moments throughout from Molloy and Gregory, as well as from their love interests, Alexandra Oomens as Elsie and Heather Lowe as Phoebe. But the overall concept was not fully thought through.  Gilbert’s lyrics are regularly changed at the whim of directors.  They are changed here, with a bespoke version of what now seems the obligatory “matter” song from Ruddigore (is there no other song fit to be used as a substitute for whatever the director wants to cut in a G&S opera?) and a predictable reference to Brexit.  Why, oh why, then was nothing done to change the references to a beheading when the executioner was a hangman?  If a piece is to be picked up and placed in a different era it needs to be consistent.

And what of Jack Point, the comic-tragi-hero of the piece?  Poor Richard McCabe, one of our finest actors is the victim of stunt casting where it need not exist.  Why does the ENO persist in trying to popularise pieces that are already popular by throwing in a star name and hoping for the best?  This is the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, not an end of the pier panto aiming to appeal to their audience by casting a reality TV star.  McCabe is hampered for the entire first act by that all-encompassing decision to set everything in the 1950’s.  As soon as he is given a marotte and the opportunity to perform a “turn” in Act Two, he flies.  This is the Jack Point the audience has been waiting for and I for one cannot wait to see McCabe play Archie Rice.

Yeomen does not have a traditionally happy ending.  Sadly, in its desire to be whatever it is desperate to be, this production robs the audience of the pathos written into the original script.  It is all just a little too clever for its own good. The Yeomen of the Guard deals with serious issues and is one of the most melodic of Sullivan’s light operas.  Despite some highlights, this production does not give it the respect it deserves.

Lottie Walker, November 2022

Photography by Tristram Kenton

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