Performing Arts

Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri

Presented by The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of SA Inc.
Reviewed Saturday 24th March 2012

This production was an Adelaide Fringe event, but it continued for a further week, a wise move that allowed people a chance to catch it in a more relaxed frame of mind. Birdies, eagles, and even bogeys, are sometimes to be encountered when playing golf. They are par for the course. As difficult as birdies and eagles are to find when you really want one, though, fairies are even more rare. Not so, however, for a group of British peers, out for the day on a golf course, in this updated version of Iolanthe, first performed in 1882. They find more fairies than they can poke a mashie-niblick at, but their queen is equally handy at poking back with a sharp spear. Yes, it is another load of hilarious nonsense from Gilbert and Sullivan, beneath which they hide their critical lampooning of the British aristocracy and the British Parliament. This operetta's ongoing popularity seems assured, since neither the Parliament nor the aristocracy in general seem to have noticeably improved since the time that this was written.

Iolanthe (it means 'violet flower') was banished for marrying a mortal, who was unaware of her real nature. He thought she was dead, and was equally unaware that she had borne him a son, Strephon, who is now in his mid twenties and a shepherd. The young man is, of course, half fairy, half human, and this has taken an unusual form, in that, his upper half is fairy, and and his lower half is human. His top half is immortal, and has fairy powers, but his bottom half is ageing at a normal rate, and has none of the special powers of a fairy, such as becoming invisible.

He has not mentioned this to Phyllis, the girl whom he loves and who loves him in return. She is the ward of the Lord Chancellor who, like most of the member's of the House of Lords, has fallen for her great beauty and charm. He refuses to entertain the idea of her marrying a lowly shepherd, and the Lords vie for her hand.

Phyllis sees Strephon embracing a young girl, who appears to be only about seventeen years of age. Phyllis naturally refuses to believe that the girl is Strephon's mother. The Fairy Queen interferes and forces the House of Lords to accept Strephon as a member, with the further proviso that any bill he proposes must be passed. All G&S operettas have a deus ex machina or two at the end, by which all problems can be put to rights, thus enabling the central characters to live happily ever after, and this is no exception.

This production was directed and designed by David Lampard, who has come up with a set that is a steeply sloping green on the golf course with trees around it, in the first act, then moving to the Palace of Westminster, converts to a lawn with a lily pond, surrounded by street lamps, and with the face of world's best known clock atop Saint Stephen's Tower displayed impressively behind it.

Iolanthe is played by Alex Gard in a most sensitive and gentle characterisation as the dutiful fairy who has quietly accepted her punishment, and the dedicated mother who has devoted herself to bringing up her son unaided. Gard is a fine choice for the role, not only through her characterisation but in her singing, adding a nice hint of resigned sadness to her voice.

Phyllis, the Arcadian shepherdess and ward in Chancery, is played by Desiree Frahn, and Strephon, the Arcadian shepherd is played by Patrick Witcombe. They make a superb pair of young lovers, with a great rapport evident, and a finely balanced blending of voices in their duets. There is plenty of youthful exuberance in both of their performances, too.

Peter Hopkins and Paul Talbot, as the Earl of Mountararat and the Earl Tolloller, the two richest and most powerful members of the House of Lords, assisted by two peers, played by tenor, Steve Parker, and bass, Nick Coxhill, amorously pursue Phyllis. The Earls provide plenty of comedy as they argue over which of them should marry her and, as a quartet with the other two peers, they offer some great harmonies.

As the Lord Chancellor, Ric Trevaskis is suitably bewildered by the difficulty of wanting to marry Phyllis himself and trying to decide which of the Earl's to give her to. Trevaskis presents the Lord Chancellor as a dithering and blustering but generally ineffectual old duffer, which gives him plenty of opportunities for comedy. His singing does get lost below the orchestra at times, though. Rod Schultz, as an added character with no dialogue, the Black Rod, is hilarious as the high camp general factotum to the Lord Chancellor, and their manoeuvring in a golf cart is a fun bit of business.

Vanessa Lee Shirley is an imposing Queen of the Fairies, with more than a touch of the Valkyries about her as she glowers at her wayward fairies and waves her spear at the mortal men. She is not as tough as she makes out, however, and her resolve occasionally falters. Shirley finds that balance between the inner and outer aspects of the Queen. Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards or, in this case, a security guard, causes the Queen to soften and change her opinion of mortal man. Rodney Hutton is Willis and he charms the audience, as well as the Queen.

Carolyn Curtis, Sarah Nagy, Liana Nagy, and Jenni O’Connor play the four fairies and provide some more fine four part harmony as they flutter around the stage. Their make-up, designed by Vanessa Lee Shirley, adds greatly to their ethereal appearance.

Musical Director, Ian Andrew, has reduced the orchestra to a string quartet, piano, and synthesizer with the musicians all sitting to one side of the stage and Andrew conducting the other five musicians from the synthesizer.

G&S productions generally have some updated dialogue and song lyrics but, on this occasion, the Australian references sit very awkwardly against the fact that this production is firmly set in England. This is only a minor point though and does not detract greatly from an otherwise very satisfying performance.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

Gilbert and Sullivan Society – Iolanthe
G$S Society – Facebook Iolanthe event page

Venue: Opera Studio, 216 Marion Road, Netley
Season: 8pm Saturday 24th March 2012
Duration: 2hrs 25min (incl interval)
Tickets: $20 to $30
Bookings: G$S Society web site online

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