Now, One Man, Two Guvnors director Cal McCrystal has clapped his hands, shouted 'I believe in fairies', and in an instant Iolanthe has flown into the limelight – doing a funny little dance and a fetching twirl in midflight.
When Crystal's project for English National Opera was first announced, you could only hope that the man who had us screaming with laughter at pratfall after pratfall in One Man ... would work the same magic with this old warhorse. On paper, Iolanthe, first staged at the Savoy in 1882, is not promising fare for a sophisticated 21st-century audience. The plot involves a fairy-human marriage that brings the perpetually young fairies into contact with the high-born halfwits of the Lords.
Happy Valley it is not. Don't come here for hard-headed drama. But happy it is, a production that has a great big smile on its face from beginning to end, popping with colour like an explosion in a My Little Pony warehouse and literally bouncing for joy. It is a love letter to the British comedic tradition, knitting the nonchalant double-entendres of Round the Horne, lines straight out of the Samantha jokebook for I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and a 'stupid boy' lifted from Dad's Army with the Cockney roof-top hoofers in Mary Poppins.
And what of the music, its passport, after all, into the English National Opera canon? Occasionally it is upstaged by the nonstop physical comedy – purists will wish for a little less action here – but for the most part it is given some oomph (it's not the very best G&S score) by the tongue-in-cheek choreography of Lizzi Gee and an orchestra under Timothy Henty on top form. Composer Arthur Sullivan could segue as neatly from his inner Mendelssohn to his inner Verdi. Once in a while the music is simply lovely, or impressively rousing, and the rest of the time, it's just plain enjoyable.
Mezzo-soprano Samantha Price in the title role has a delectable honeyed sound, although some diction problems. Andrew Shore as the Lord Chancellor gives a masterclass in ending words with difficult consonants – his impeccable patter Nightmare song is a canter through the hellish nonsense of dreams.
Yvonne Howard is a more glamorous Queen of the Fairies than the old battleaxes of yore, and Marcus Farnsworth is the half-man, half-fairy offspring of an illicit match who has obviously picked up terrific dance skills in his unusual upbringing, joining Ellie Laugharne's Phyllis, Strephon's true love, in a natty clog dance.
Clive Mantle's warm-up man/MC/London Fire Brigade inspector Captain Shaw, a new addition, breaks the ice and Richard Leeming's Page Boy, as floppy as a marionette, hits the deck so often he will be black and blue by Mothering Sunday.
The whole jolly package comes gift-wrapped in the design by Paul Brown, who died before he saw it realised. Its exuberant palate, inventive fairy rig-outs, toile du jouy shepherds' kit, and generous, painterly sets are a bighearted finale to that gifted life.
If you have never dipped your toe into Gilbert and Sullivan, this riotous Iolanthe is a warm and bubbly place to start. If you're already a fan, you'll know that Gilbert and Sullivan themselves would have adored the naughty vitality of this fizzingly slapstick production. I have never heard an ENO audience hoot with such laughter. Think One Man, Two Guvnors with even more songs.
|What||Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe review , English National Opera, Coliseum|
English National Opera
London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
13 Feb 18 – 17 Mar 18, 14 performances; times vary
|Price||£12 - £125|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|