Thespis: Or the Gods Grown Old

Original Libretto by W S Gilbert adapted by Anthony Baker
Score selected from Sullivan and Offenbach and orchestrated by Timothy Henty
Normansfield Theatre, Teddington
(2008)

Ostensibly this is the first professional revival since 1872 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘lost’ comic opera Thespis, in which a troupe of strolling players ascend Mount Olympus to give the tired and ageing Gods a year off to rejuvenate in the fleshpots of London, with woeful Olympian consequences.

In fact the production, three performances in the exquisite Normansfield Theatre, is something more interesting and complex: no less than the reconstruction of Gilbert and Sullivan’s very first collaboration, in a new performing edition by Anthony Baker and Timothy Henty, given by a company under the group title of the Normansfield Experiment.

Normansfield in Teddington, built in 1879 as the artistic heart of a sanatorium for Down’s Syndrome patients, is a perfect little time capsule, a Victorian theatre with a highly decorative proscenium, where stage, scenery and equipment are exactly as they were when it closed to the public in 1909 — a sort of suburban Drottningholm.

Leading the group are Baker, theatre designer and director (whose opera projects include stagings in Valencia, Amsterdam and Dallas), Henty (conductor for the Royal Ballet as well as reviving early 1900s musicals at the Finborough); and its tireless producer Chris Crowcroft.

Their opening production, presented last year under the auspices of the Carl Rosa Company, was an ingenious re-staging of Patience, with a professional cast led by actor Timothy West who played Gilbert’s stage manager, rehearsing the company in the first act, followed by a full scale performance of Act 2, set in a forest glade using Normansfield’s stock scenic flats.

Thespis has proved a greater challenge. Although the libretto survives, with a highly Gilbertian story, Sullivan’s score is largely lost save for a couple of numbers (one very well-known which Sullivan reused in The Pirates of Penzance).

Baker worked on the script, staying fairly close to the original, and has also directed; while Henty, following up clues left by Sullivan, devised a lively score created from correlations between Gilbert’s lyrics for Thespis and Sullivan’s surviving vocal settings for the other operettas in the canon, as well as incorporating some matching music by Offenbach.

In performance, combining jaunty lyrics with similarly jaunty music, has made for a first act of catchy, bouncy numbers as the scene is set for the rather darker second act. Had Sullivan’s score survived there may well have been a greater harmonic variation and vocal coloration to catch the ear, but a brilliant company, in fine voice and superbly costumed, drive the action forward.

The second act is a little marvel of musical reconstruction, incorporating Sullivan’s sole surviving original setting for Little Maid of Arcadee, superbly sung by Miranda Westcott in the breeches role of Sparkeion, a bridegroom whose marriage is interrupted by his redeployment as a Deputy Apollo, regretting the impermanence of romantic love.

G&S veteran Jill Pert gave a terrific turn as Diana. Other delights included Rebecca Seale’s impudent young Mercury, looking after godly affairs in the temporary absence of Simon Masterton-Smith’s Jupiter, Giles Davies strongly cast as the theatre troupe’s Stage Manager, and the vocally outstanding Melanie Lodge whose role as Daphne cum Calliope leads to some vexing questions about Olympian marital arrangements.

Above all, Richard Suart in the title role, gave a tremendous performance as the actor-laddie, a comedian cum tragedian, not least in his first act patter song:

I once knew a chap who discharged a function
On the North South East West Diddlesex junction

a song which die-hard Savoyards, poring over their G&S history books, had never hoped to hear given a full-blooded theatrical performance.

After that it seems remiss of Jupiter to dole out a godly punishment to his wayward deputies: an awful curse against “contemptible comedians” transformed to “eminent tragedians whom no-one ever goes to see”.

Luckily this will clearly not apply to the far from contemptible Normansfield experimenters who surely have another special G&S delight in prospect.

John Thaxter