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Express G & S

Written by John Savournin, after Gilbert, with new lyrics by David Eaton.
Charles Court Opera
Pleasance Theatre

Express G & S Credit: Photo: Nick Rutter. Artwork: Alex Jackson
Philip Lee, Matthew Kellett and Catrine Kirkman Credit: Nick Rutter & Bill Knight
Catrine Kirkman Credit: Nick Rutter & Bill Knight
Matthew Kellett, Catrine Kirkman and Philip Lee Credit: Nick Rutter & Bill Knight
Matthew Kellett and Philip Lee Credit: Nick Rutter & Bill Knight

In what they call “a murderous musical mystery tour”, Charles Court Opera claims to include something from every one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s famed operettas. I certainly recognized numbers or parts of them from The Mikado, Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, Iolanthe, Patience, Pirates of Penzance and Ruddigore.

Savoyards will recognize more and find it a treat for this cast of Matthew Kellett Catrine Kirkman and Philip Lee are fine singers who deliver every number with clarity and brio, but this isn’t only a songfest. John Savournin has devised a framework inspired by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and David Eaton has adapted or rewritten Gilbert’s lyrics to fit such a story.

Matthew Kellett plays moustachioed detective Phillipe Pierot who is set to solve a crime that isn’t a murder but malicious damage, the destruction of waitress Bridget’s trolley, what she calls her doily cart, the one piled with cream gateau from which we have seen Bridget (Catrine Kirkman) serve Pierot’s tea. Now someone has sabotaged it.

The train’s conductor Reg (Philip Lee) is in the clear, he’s far too attached to Bridget, and Carl Rosa is ruled out, but a straw boater, a jester’s stick and a strand of grey hair may provide clues. They belong to a young man (Lee) in love with Yum Yum (Kirkman), a nimble-footed jester Jack (Lee) and an elderly lady (Kirkman) enamoured of Reg. But are these clues red herrings?

A Detective Inspector (Kirkman yet again) has come aboard—though he’s dressed like an ordinary constable so you can guess what he gets to sing. Throughout all this doubling is skilfully handled.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek show in which numbers end with a momentary applause-getting tableau and it goes at a break-neck speed that, despite exemplary diction, makes some lyrics too fast to take them all in.

CCO fans may be a little disappointed that writer-director John Savournin doesn’t make an appearance, but his team and their energy make everything great fun from David Eaton’s neatly rhymed introduction to the final denouement which, as in Christie’s own tales, springs a surprise solution.

At stalls level, the Pleasance has removed seating and replaced it cabaret style with chairs at spaced-out tables so that you don’t have to keep face-masks on for the whole show. Things are made safe from COVID but that didn’t save the company from having to cancel a performance last week when a member of one performer’s household was asked to test because of possible contact and results were not through in time to permit performance. That is when I should have been reviewing, but I had to wait a week until the next London performance.

Future performances of Express G & S so far announced are on 11 July at Lichfield Festival, 9 August Hever Festival at The Festival Theatre at Hever Castle, 12 August The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Harrogate Royal Hall, 17 August The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Harrogate Royal Hall and 29 September at City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton