Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri

W S Gilbert & Sir Arthur Sullivan
English National Opera
London Coliseum

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The Cast in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
The Cast in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Catherine Wyn-Rogers and ENO Chorus in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Marcus Fransworth and Ellie Laugharne in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Ruairi Bowen, Ben McAteer and ENO Chorus in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Llio Evans, Marcus Farnsworth and ENO Chorus in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Catherine Wyn-Rogers in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Clive Mantle in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Petra Massey and ENO Chorus in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
John Savournin and ENO Chorus in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Ben McAteer, Ellie Laugharne, Ruairi Bowen, and Keel Watson in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller
Samantha Price and John Savournin in Iolanthe Credit: Craig Fuller

Cal McCrystal’s Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri returns after its deserved success in 2018—I missed it then (illness) but manage to catch its fifth performance of this run—and I see that he’s a maximalist… more is more. Emphatically. Flamingo, strolling partridges, panto cow, unicorn whose horn is a beer tap, a horse that dumps its load as comment… cockney movers, cockney maids (Mary Poppins?)…

Not entirely pleasing to some purist Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados, but a much-needed pleasure in a sea of sorrows that is the present day. I enjoy myself enormously spotting how McCrystal’s perky tongue-in-cheek mind works. There are many distractions—and often at the most inappropriate times—and many double and triple entendres, in-jokes, puns and the oh so easy lampooning of present day MPs… and more.

It’s panto, music hall, and ‘Cirque du Soleil’ flying on wires. There are plenty of smiles and laughs out loud at some of the tripping wit and visual gags. And there’s a sing-along. The fourth wall is broken from the off when Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle) takes the stage before the curtain has opened to give us our fire safety instructions. Now, he was the founder of the London Fire Brigade in 1861, so the programme tells us, and loved opening nights (Iolanthe in 1882). Here he is crucial to proceedings not just a name in the Fairy Queen’s wishful thinking.

There is much Wagnerian mimicking—the Fairy Queen (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) could be Brünnhilde with her conical breasts and wand that flashes fire. And her fairies cry is very like the Valkyries. Which brings me to the fiasco with the ENO’s 2021 Valkyrie production when Westminster council forbad the use of fire for the blazing end. Now we have Captain Shaw with his hose at the ready. A lovely in-joke, but how many will get it?

Spilling with invention and ideas, it’s an exuberant feast for the eyes and ears. Production values are high: Paul Brown’s spectacular designs—Victorian cut-outs of flowers and birds fill the stage until a steam locomotive smashes its way through the beautiful backcloth, carrying its invasive cargo of entitled House of Lords peers. I remember Brown doing something similar with a train in Jonathan Kent’s 2001 Platonov.

His colourful costumes for the fairies are individual and make me imagine Marie Lloyd in her music hall heyday. And the Arcadian scenes and costumes for the charming lovers, Phyllis and Strephon (Ellie Laugharne and Marcus Farnsworth both brilliant), could be Marie Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess. Naturally, there are sheep, pushed around by incompetent sheep shifters in black—this is a bit too slapstick in the middle of their lovely duet and takes away from them. Not everything needs to be sent up. It’s Morecambe and Wise sabotaging their own show.

There’s so much to take in visually that one almost has little time to absorb the fine singing and playing, as we race from one image to the next in this cartoon strip of a production. Boris on his bike, Boris and Nadine trying to break into Parliament, the Lord Chancellor (John Savournin excellent) lounging like Jacob Rees-Mogg on the benches (here red of course). And the two lords, Earl Tolloller (Ruairi Bowen in fine tenor voice) and Earl of Mountararat (baritone Ben McAteer), who vie for Phyllis’s hand, turn out to be ‘fairies’ after all.

Peers and fairies come to an accommodation. Fairies do not have to die if they marry a mortal. How easy it is to change a law… with the insertion of one word. Gilbert’s satire is biting; McCrystal has turned it into flippant light comedy.

And how prescient Gilbert was—Strephon’s mother, the fairy Iolanthe, (Samantha Price) does not age—fairies don't age (celebrity culture de nos jours…)—which leads to confusion. How can half-fairy, half-mortal Strephon be her son when she doesn't look old enough to be his mother? And who’s his father? Only the Lord Chancellor who fancies his chances with his ward Phyllis.

Lizzi Gee’s choreography is wonderful for fairies and peers alike and for the prat-falling servants, especially Page (Adam Brown), who is desperate to get in on the act. There’s even a clog dance for the lovers—la Fille mal gardée… Petra Massey’s petite Fleta makes me think of Puck, and is that Oberon—on the framing gilt picture mount—looking down?

Sullivan’s tuneful musical score is ever hummable. The singing is great; the acting as exaggerated as it should be. Conductor Chris Hopkins looks to be enjoying himself in the pit. All in all a good evening out—do yourselves a favour and go for the fun and the guessing game. See if you can spot the sheep wearing a crown in the Royal box at the side—Queen Victoria…

Gilbert took pot shots, I read, at “Queen Victoria, John Brown (her personal servant and ‘close companion’), Lord Randolph Churchill (reformist Tory) and William Gladstone (the serving Liberal PM)”. McCrystal has updated and added a new veneer of infectious ribaldry. Additional material is credited to Toby Davies and McCrystal himself.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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