Iolanthe

Date 12th April 2019
Society Oxted Operatic Society
Venue The Barn Theatre, Oxted
Type of Production G&S
Director Fiona Steel
Musical Director Zoe Humphries
Choreographer Fiona Steel

Report

Author: Jon Fox

As a lifelong devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan, I was delighted to once again see and review what I consider Gilbert's very best libretto. In this strange Parliamentary time we live in today there can surely be no more apt line than "this comes of women interfering in politics"!   Sexism was rife in the Victorian age and Gilbert made much use of it in his works. Sullivan's sparkling melodies, with perhaps the very best Act one Finale of them all, perfectly both disarm and enrich the brilliant caustic sting of Gilbert's words.

Oxted Operatic's director Fiona Steel is steeped in Gilbert and Sullivan and this was abundantly evident throughout this production. Add a richly talented and deeply layered cast and a dedicated and knowledgeable backstage and technical team and this show's success was assured. And so it proved!  From the opening chorus of prettily clad fairies - just as well that fairies never grow old - to the final trip to fairyland by all and sundry, the production rattled along.

Importantly, all the principals had fine singing voices and what a difference this makes. I have seen countless amateur shows let down because of the poor quality of principal's vocal skills. Not this one though!

The rich sonorous tones of  Paul Bailey-Smith playing The Lord Chancellor, Richard Allen as Earl of Mountararat ("George" to his friends - and rivals!), Paul Robinson as Earl Tolloller ("Thomas") impressed greatly.    Tolloller's voice was baritone, rather than tenor but Paul has a good vocal range and was comfortable throughout the show. All three possess huge stage presence.

There was great comic effect between those two poshly spoken noble lords in rivalry for the affections of the flirtatious and distinctly Cockney Phyllis - object of male admiration across that noble house. Theatre people well know that as few as two words, brilliantly spoken and acted can steal a show. I remember a "My Fair Lady" for "Bravo Eliza";  and Ruddigore for "I am" and this Iolanthe will forever be the "which half?" show in my mind's eye.

Emma Davey is an actress supreme. Her prodding, vocal inflection and delicious facial expressions when enquiring of the fortunate / unfortunate Strephon  "which half?" stole the show without doubt. As Phyllis, she had every eye upon her whenever she appeared.

Playing opposite the vibrant and melodic Emma, as Strephon and, unusually,  as a butler (shepherds being none too common in Westminster presumably, even in the Victorian era!) was the convincingly young looking Samuel Blackman-Gibson, another fine singer and actor. Emma and Samuel made a well matched pair with "None shall part us" hauntingly sung. Upon Strephon's revealing that he was "half a fairy", thus disarming Phyllis's misplaced jealousy of Iolanthe, the mood change was thrillingly engaging.    

But in true Gilbertian sexist fashion I have not yet mentioned the other ladies. "This comes of women interfering in musicals" presumably! Apologies for the deliberate misquote WSG!

Jenny Roe in the title role as the harshly punished Iolanthe, reprieved by the other fairies' pleas to the Fairy Queen and thus forgiven, was a most convincing mother and wife too. Her emotions, when sacrificing her life for her son (as she thought) was achingly real.  A fine singer too is Jenny!   Iolanthe's ageless sisters included Celia - Ellie Skipper - and Leila - Laura Chapman.   The written out Fleta was easily absorbed by these two fairies. Major comic effect was given full play by the antics of these two, especially, but by the other faires too. Skilful imbuing of the fairies with individual characteristics enhanced this show. I particularly liked the business, firstly with the wings and then involving the sentry in the second verse of "Oh Foolish Fay"

Emma Denny playing the mighty Queen of the Fairies, and milking this rewarding role for all it was worth, was splendid throughout. Her admiration for the "simply Godlike"  Private Willis, AKA James Saunders, was a comic highlight.  If I thought James just a touch short of looking "Godlike", forgive me if you will. However, his performance as the heroic though stolid Private Willis was deeply impressive. Beautiful diction and a well defined and sympathetically played character made for an engaging performance.

Iolanthe is not a show where dancing is overmuch to the fore, but Fiona moved her cast around to much effect nevertheless.

A beautiful woodland set, and effective Parliamentary set in Act Two, both designed courtesy of the experienced Martin Beatty and built by Friends of the Barn, certainly caught the eye with Iolanthe's initial entrance being the highlight of the opening scene. 

Fiona's principal cast did  her proud with all  playing their roles with aplomb and each possessing at least fine, through to excellent, singing voices. Every character possessed crisp and clear diction, which is not something I can usually write in my reviews of G and S, where words are of major importance.

The band under MD Zoe Humphries was, however, distinctly less good and rather uneven. Some, mostly rather younger players, were of lesser standard than others. The tempi, however was overall of good standard. I had difficulty in discerning any alto line in Tripping Hither and thereafter it came and went rather.

Though this is more personal taste than adverse comment, I would have  preferred more lightening and obvious comedy in the Lord Chancellor's character. Paul who played him has a distinct stage presence and vocally projects very well; ironically even a little too well for the central comedic role. I must though commend Paul for his excellent rendition of the difficult Nightmare Song. In Friendship's Name was another vocal highlight, by Emma, James and the two Earls.

Costumes were eye catching and wardrobe mistress Jane Maisey ensured all were well fitted. I  particularly liked the fairies costumes and also Strephon, respendent in striped blazer. OOS has it's own fine costume store and with help from other  several well-known suppliers, including Eirian Walsh Atkins and Monicaa Mickels, a fine job done was evident to all.

Good use of sound by John Chinnock and Jenny Chiles was matched by fine lighting by Richard Grogan.

In total, I much enjoyed this production with the principal characters very much to the fore with good pace and skilful interplay. A most rousing and upbeat finale made for an excellent finish.