Gilbert and Sullivan
English Touring Opera
Everyman Cheltenham

Lauren Zolezzi as milkmaid Patience Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, ETO
Bradley Travis as Bunthorpe Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, ETO
Ross Ramgobin as Grosvenor is mobbed by fans Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, ETO

There were three rules when I was a trainee reporter sometimes covering local productions: name everyone down to the programme seller, check the spellings, and never, ever criticise Gilbert and Sullivan. Fortunately, nearly 50 years on, I don’t always feel the need to do as I’m told.

This, the sixth of 14 G&S collaborations, is a satire on the aestheticism of the 1880s in which rival poets, Bunthorpe and Grosvenor, attract flocks of fashionable female admirers but inevitably fall for the milkmaid Patience.

The piece ran for four years (this was some time before Netflix) so it would be churlish to deny its many attractive qualities—an interesting score, lively tunes, Gilbert’s witty lyrics and the figure of Patience herself.

Like all operatic milkmaids, Lauren Zolezzi comes with a handy coloratura, a winning charm and a surprising ability to heft a heavy churn. I wanted her never to leave the stage.

There’s an excellent chorus for the Heavy Dragoons, the worst regiment in the British army, spiritedly led by Andrew Slater’s Colonel as they mourn that fact that love vows made in uniform—“confessions in Hessians”—are no longer enough to win a maiden’s heart.

And who could not warm to Valerie Reid, who as Lady Jane sings sadly “stouter than I used to be (soon) there’ll be too much of me”, illustrating her supposedly spreading figure with a similarly proportioned double bass.

Gaynor Keeble led the bevy of lovesick maidens as if she believed in it all, but Aled Hall—splendid as Spoletta in ETO’s Tosca—seemed less comfortable vocally and dramatically as the Duke.

Bradley Travis plays Bunthorpe in satin, with flamboyant bow and peacock quill pen, who like Oscar Wilde might “walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily.” He and Ross Ramgobin as Grosvenor, 19 going on 40, sing beautifully and act so far over-the-top as to be airborne.

Clever though they are, some of the songs include references so long forgotten that they merit a page of explanation in the programme. But the main problem with the piece is that the preening pair are vain and self-important to such a ridiculous degree (i.e. complete twits) that their tedious, spoken scenes between songs made me want to stick pins in someone.

I remember a tradition of wearing period dress to attend music hall performances. Maybe this might have helped to get into the spirit, for the Victorians sat through nearly 600 performances of the first run, so must have found something to laugh at in these sketches (this was some time before Morecambe and Wise).

G&S are the Marmite of opera. Their most avid fans see no faults, and others may tolerate dated elements for their works' singular vivacity and innocence. Nevertheless, I had hoped for greater invention in Liam Steel’s production, which relies for its laughs too heavily on posies and aesthetic poses and the synchronised, synthetic swooning of the maidens’ chorus, whose awkward manoeuvrings are not helped by the large steps of Florence de Mare’s set.

Reviewer: Colin Davison