As a newcomer to the revered world of Gilbert and Sullivan, I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not Iolanthe was the place to start, given its comparative obscurity and the enormous number of classics the pair wrote during their incredible careers. This production, however, directed by Peter Swallow and Mary Jayne Harding Scott gave me an extremely warm introduction to the world. It was clear from the beginning of the piece that the main aim was simply to have fun which, despite an uncertain start, it ultimately achieved.
After a playful and enthusiastic overture, the curtain lifted to reveal a cartoonish, idyllic world which, in keeping with the play’s primary themes, blended nature with a more human environment. We are then introduced to the chorus of fairies who, along with their human counterparts, provided some of the most interesting and enjoyable scenes in the piece. That’s not to say that the performances offered by the leads weren’t also enjoyable. Phyllis, played by Lani Strange, was spectacular after, what appeared to be, a somewhat shaky start. Most of this could be chalked down to opening night nerves, however, as much of the cast seemed similar for the first ten minutes or so.
Once the peers enter the scene, it definitely takes a more comedic turn, with attention in their initial scenes being stolen by Earl Tolloller, played by the wonderful Natalie Reeve. As is often the case when a piece has a live orchestra, the entire cast could have, often, done with a little more focus on annunciation and volume when singing since, at times, it was a little difficult to understand exactly what was going on in each scene. The only character who was unerringly understandable with an equally unerring voice was the Fairy Queen, played by Elizabeth O’Donnell, who gave more energy to every scene she entered.
After the intermission, everyone appeared to come back with a little more enthusiasm and the second half was decidedly more sure of itself. Ultimately, the original piece doesn’t really lend itself to anything other than a somewhat two-dimensional romp in a sort of ‘tea and crumpets’ Britain. In spite of the fact that this world is considered more and more unsavoury, this production of Iolanthe avoids being overly reminiscent of this (even given the original script they had to work with) and even rounds out the more, traditionally, limited character of the heroine. All in all, they have tactfully created a piece where you can see the performers enjoying themselves and cannot help but enjoy yourself too.