Culture Critic Rhys Morgan reviews Gilbert and Sullivan society’s ‘thoroughly entertaining’ production of Iolanthe.
I was not familiar with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, nor had I had the opportunity to see any operettas, when I first arrived in the Debating Hall to see the University G+S Society’s performance of Iolanthe. I had perhaps assumed that Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire about fairies invading Parliament might have been a somewhat niche affair, but the Hall filled whilst the band played discordant ambient music, with the seats close to sold out. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive; I wasn’t sure if I would ‘get’ it, or if it was for me. My apprehension was unfounded.
The play opened with the entrance of the conductor, fittingly using a magic wand as a baton. The band then began the overture – a medley of the operetta’s many songs. Musical Director Stuart Emmerson clearly did a great job. For the most part, the band performed like a well-oiled machine, executing the pieces with only the slightest of stumbles in some of the more difficult section. This high level of quality was also maintained by the cast, who showcased both excellent singing and good comedic timing. The cast gave most of the jokes plenty of room to breathe and sink in for the audience, something that is vital for W. S. Gilbert’s snappy, wordplay-infused dialogue. Tolloller and Mountararat’s dispute over who should kill who in a duel had the audience and I in stitches.
In terms of comedy, the star of the show was Fionn Creber’s Lord Chancellor. Fionn Creber strutted the stage with such an over-the-top extravagance that he could often make the audience break out in laughter before he’d even said a word, though the emotion of his reconciliation with the bride that he believed to be dead was a little understated. Regarding the singing ability of the cast, particular props must be given to Altus Chan’s Strephon and Hattie Pinches’ Iolanthe. The fairy and half-fairy both looked and sounded the part. Pinches’ long hair down to her waist combined with her voice and her long blue dress gave her an otherworldly aesthetic. Meanwhile Altus Chan’s Mumford and Sons getup of suspenders, shorts, and a beanie, sharply contrasted with his extremely operatic voice, literally demonstrating his human and his fairy halves.
The rest of the cast were also performing at a high standard. However, some of the more chaotic scenes in the play when all the characters are running around on stage at once became a little difficult to visually parse. In these sections, some of the cast’s movements also became a little wooden, but this is more a consequence of fitting so many people on one stage, rather than a consequence of any deficiency on the cast’s part. Another weakness of the play that, at times, became noticeable was that sometimes the band would play a little too loudly making it difficult to make out the lyrics. The music is lovely, but being unable to hear parts of the witty libretto makes it more difficult to appreciate parts of the play. Thankfully, this was only a problem for some segments of the play, but it did mean that I was unfortunately barely able to hear some of the quieter singers in the cast.
Despite these very slight drawbacks, the cast and crew of the operetta should be very proud of creating such a thoroughly entertaining show. As someone who thought that an operetta melding pantomime, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and political satire together might not be for him, I must confess that the Gilbert and Sullivan society entirely convinced and maybe even converted me. I look forward to their next production.