Cox and Box and The Zoo

Date 6th July 2018
Society Astwood Bank Operatic Society
Venue Church of St Matthias and St George
Type of Production Musical
Director Steve Skinner (The Zoo)
Musical Director John Graham (The Zoo)
Accompanist Joy Reeve (Cox and Box) Maddy Evans (The Zoo)


Author: Andy Brown

Two one act pieces with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan but neither had the lyrics supplied by William S Gilbert. These were provided by Francis Cowley Burnand for Cox and Box and Bolton Rowe (alias B C Stephenson) for The Zoo.

Cox and Box was first presented in private in May 1866 following an adaption of the farce ‘Box and Cox’ by John Madison Morton. Over the years the version we see now was performed alongside popular Gilbert and Sullivan works such as ‘H.M.S Pinafore’ and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.

To many in the audience, this performance was their first time seeing the three actors perform this show. For myself I have had the privilege of seeing it before. Indeed, the actors have together performed the show no less that 30 times before including the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival and Worcestershire One Act Festival.

The piece is set in the lodgings of Sergeant Bouncer played as always with great presence by Paul Thompson. No matter how many times one hears his rich voice one never tires especially when he tells about his military days, ‘Yes, Yes, in those Merry Days’ including Rataplan which he uses when all else fails.  

To double the rent he receives, Bouncer has let out the room to two people who only ever meet on the stairway. Mr Cox (a hatter therefore out all day) played by Ian Walton and Mr Box (a printer therefore out all night) played by Michael Faulkner.  Cox becomes suspicious of Bouncer before he leaves for work and joins in a further rendition of ‘Rataplan’ only to meet Box once again on the stairs. This was a super rendition by both involved.   

Box now home from work prepares to cook his breakfast – ‘Hush’d is the bacon on the grid’. As always sung with great tenderness and feeling. Bouncer’s plan however now falls apart because Cox comes skipping cheerfully home telling us his employer wishes him to take the day as his holiday.

The pursuing action of one trying to cook his bacon and the other a mutton chop was well done and made the most of the comic text before the pair finally meet and sing, ‘Who are you, Sir!’ – brilliantly sang by both. Bouncer enters and all three once again sing ‘Rataplan’ again well-handled and well-choreographed. Offering the little back room, both accept only to then realise they could be friends and Box offers an explanation to avoid marriage to a certain Penelope Ann performing his dramatic and amusing rendition of, ‘Not long ago’.  A letter held by Bouncer saves both Cox and Box from marriage as she now intends to marry Mr Knox. Finally, as Cox does not have a strawberry birthmark this must of course make him the long-lost brother of Box! All three rejoice with what better than anther rendition of ‘Rataplan’ – one of those songs you have in your head for days afterwards.

The set for the production was simple and functional. The actors made the most of the facilities in the church using steps and side doors.

I most certainly hope to see this production again – I believe I will!!

During the interval the small performance area was transformed into London Zoological Gardens or at least the part between the bear pit and the refreshment stall. The preshow sound effects were in keeping and set the scene well.

The Zoo lasts for about 40 minutes without written dialogue other than an introduction and conclusion spoken by Astwood Band Operatic Society President Michael Hawkins as Narrator. As one of the least known works by Sullivan (think I have only seen it once before) this was a welcome introduction to the story.  The Zoo was originally performed in 1875 some ten weeks after Trial by Jury opened. Unlike Trial by Jury this show was shelved in 1879 and then completely disappeared until rediscovered in an auction in 1966.   

The show opened to the chorus making their way to the zoo cheerfully singing, ‘The British Public Here you See’. The rousing number (containing a hint of ‘Rule Britannia’) was well performed as the chorus made their way down the aisle of the church to the zoo. The chorus took part in most of the show in good voice throughout.

Aesulapius Carboy played with conviction by Michael Ferris, the lovelorn apothecary who plans to hang himself, tells the chorus of his love for Laetittia Grinder and the mix up made with the prescription for her and her father. His first song does have a hint of further work by Sullivan – ‘A Wandering Minstrel I’.

At her refreshment stall is Eliza Smith played by Ellie Peberdy who gave a confident performance, singing her songs well, such as, ‘I’m a Simply Little Child’. Ellie’s character the Cockney proprietor of the stall is in love with Thomas Brown played by Ian Walton (Mr Cox earlier in the evening.) Walton played the part of Brown (disguised - he is in fact the Duke of Islington!) with equal conviction and clarity as in the previous role especially in his song with the chorus, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’.

There were also good and strong performances by Sophie Hill as Laetittia who also sang very well and Richard Needham as her father the not so nice Mr Grinder. Well done to you both also. 

This production was performed during an all too unusual period of hot weather. Therefore, congratulations to Gertie the Gorilla played by herself for managing to perform with all that fur. She managed some good comic moments so was well trained. I did however notice the disappearance of Melanie Hart during the show – maybe you were looking after Gertie?

My congratulations to Astwood Bank Operatic Society for a highly entertaining evening and bringing to life two relatively unknown pieces of Sullivan’s work. It is a great shame these are forgotten by so many so thank you for the opportunity to share the evening with you all.

As for the next show – well I think it is rather more well-known and this one includes the words of W. S. Gilbert - The Mikado.  I look forward to seeing all at Astwood Bank for this very popular work in March 2019.