It’s not Carry On

It’s hard to forget an opening night like that. I’m no stranger to the most recent Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) productions at the English National Opera (ENO). That’s predominantly down to the intoxicating stage and costume designs, which are usually littered with wit and humour.

(Read my review of Mike Leigh’s The Pirates of Penzance here.) Likewise, Tuesday night was a real treat for the eyes and ears with the ENO’s first production of G & S’s Iolanthe. It’s a visual splendour left behind by its designer Paul Brown who sadly passed away last year. On Tuesday night, a cheerful first-night audience enjoyed Paul’s marvellous set designs. From the interiors of the Houses of Parliament to the naturalistic and floral settings, it was all rather Instagram-worthy. I mean, a steam train enters the stage! Talk about being original.

Director of Paddington and One Man, Two Guvnors Cal McCrystal amuses and surprises the audience with his own unique imagining, which may not please all taste buds. It certainly tickled mine, and many others sitting around me.

IOLANTHE by Gilbert and Sullivan; English National Opera; London Coliseum; London, UK; 8 February 2018; Iolanthe - Samantha Price; Phyllis - Ellie Laugharne; Queen of the Fairies - Yvonne Howard; Strephon - Marcus Farnsworth; The Lord Chancellor - Andrew Shore; Earl of Mountararat - Ben McAteer; Earl of Tolloller - Ben Johnson Celia - Llio Evans; Leila - Joanne Appleby; Private Willis - Barnaby Rea; Page - Richard Leeming; Conductor - Timothy Henty; Director - Cal McCrystal; Designer - Paul Brown; Lighting designer - Tim Mitchell; Choreographer - Lizzi Gee; Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

IOLANTHE by Gilbert and Sullivan, English National Opera © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

It’s the topsy turvy world of Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd, who is burdened with his physical makeup being half fairy and half mortal. The Queen of the Fairies remind the kingdom of fairies that if a fairy were to marry a mortal, they’d be punished with death. Problem is, he wants to marry Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess, but this isn’t possible, obviously, so Phyllis is left with a choice: which mortal Earl to marry? Iolanthe, Strephon’s fairy mother, also has her own secretive conundrums, but I won’t spoil it for you.

ENO Chorus, Ben McAteer, Ben Johnson, Llio Evans, Joanne Appleby and the ENO Chorus © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

The frivolity is endless, and I’m not just referring to G & S necessarily. It’s the combined forces of McCrystal and the determined efforts from the production’s soloists and the ENO Chorus. Some may comment on how Christmas panto the directing may have seemed on Tuesday night with its cheeky, low blow jokes, but I was completely unaffected by it. A couple sat next to me discussed how sick and tired they were of the innuendos in the interval, and I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely prepared, either, for when the Queen of the Fairies said ‘strap-on’ as opposed to Strephon, but the production has its good intentions. That mainly involves giving the audience a memorable and fun evening of the score and storytelling by comic operetta duo Gilbert & Sullivan. There’s nothing overtly political, and it’s definitely not, in any shape or form, like another Carry On movie.

Speaking of politics, for anyone expecting amended lyrics to reflect the political landscape of today, then they’ll be disappointed. There’s no mention of David Cameron or Brexit this time round (woohoo!), but there is a Boris Johnson impersonator who cycles past the Houses of Parliament, or the Houses of Peers in our case. Social and political satire this opera is not.

Barnaby Rea (Private Willis) and Yvonne Howard (Queen Of The Fairies), right, in Iolanthe with the ENO Chorus. © Tristram Kenton

Other favourite moments in the production include breaking the forth wall with the audience’s participation of ‘Said I to myself, said I,’ and I’m a sucker for the irrelevant animals that come on stage, including a dangling peacock, the family of mechanical quails that briefly grace the stage, a sing-along cow, a group of static sheep and a unicorn that operates like a beer tap.

Being entirely new to the score of Iolanthe, I enjoyed the conductor Timothy Henty’s upbeat and melodic interpretation. He knows the music of G & S inside and out. The ENO orchestra brought their A game, too. Musical theatre, Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wagner’s Ring cycle influenced the music of Iolanthe, and with the range of musical styles on show, it made the two hours and a half seem to fly by. That said it’s still a long evening at the London Coliseum. It would have worked better if I haven’t been up since 6 am that day.

Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

Welsh mezzo-soprano Samantha Price’s voice was lush and smooth as the young-looking mother to Strephon. English Baritone Andrew Shore provided the smiles, again, as Lord Chancellor, just as he did in Pirates as the Major General. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard gives an engaging and vocally strong performance as the Queen of the Fairies. Soprano Ellie Laugharne is the cutie pie Phyllis. Next to baritone Marcus Farnsworth, singing as Strephon, they display a romantic and playful performance, which includes dancing in clogs. Was it tap dancing? I’m not quite sure.

Ben Johnson, Andrew Shore, Richard Leeming and Ben McAteer © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

Bold moments of laughter and tomfoolery came together through London-born tenor Ben Johnson and Northern Irish baritone Ben McAteer as the Earl of Tolloller and the Earl of Mountararat. Bass singer Barnaby Rea gives an impressive performance of ‘When all night long a chap remains’ as Private Willis and ENO Chorus singers Llio Evans, Joanne Appleby and Flick Ferdinano add quirkiness and vigour to the fairies clan. The ENO chorus as an entity were courageous as ever. Without them, the production would have been an empty stage lacking atmosphere and enthusiasm. Lastly, Richard Leeming as the Pageboy shouldn’t go unnoticed as he went through many hoops and  punches to ensure ‘If you go in you’re sure to win’ happened three times seamlessly. It ran like clockwork.

Barnaby Rea (Private Willis) Tristram Kenton

Barnaby Rea (Private Willis). Photo by Tristram Kenton

No animals were harmed in the making of this production, but I can’t speak on behalf of the humans pretending to act like them, though. Go with an open mind expecting to have fun, and you’ll be rewarded with a supremely entertaining show.

The ENO’s Iolanthe is showing at the London Coliseum until April 7th 2018. Click here to purchase tickets now.