Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan

Date 16th May 2019
Society Alton Operatic & Dramatic Society
Venue Assembly Rooms, Alton
Type of Production G&S
Director Eleanor Bradbury
Musical Director Steven Moore
Choreographer Anna Lang


Author: Pauline Surrey

Since its exciting premiere in 1882, Iolanthe, the fourth consecutive success for Gilbert and Sullivan, has been performed consistently.  Exciting it was, indeed, as this was the first new theatre production in the world to be illuminated with electric lights, giving new opportunities for thus far unknown special effects. ‘Iolanthe’ lampoons the stuffy peers of the House of Lords, and thus never goes out of date, and as usual lends itself well to being constantly updated with topical quips, one of the joys of Gilbert and Sullivan for many.

The well-designed programme made very interesting reading. The Chairman gave us a background to the work, which was complemented nicely by a ‘Did you know?’ piece at the back. The Director’s Note gave us insight into the staging of the production, and how it was brought up to date. There were super cast profiles, factual and amusing, which added to our enjoyment. Rather lovely photos, in costume, set on and around the John Pinkerton on the Basingstoke Canal, made a nice change from rehearsal photos.

Act 1 was set in the courtyard of the Café Canaletto beside the Basingstoke Canal, with pretty café table and floral decoration. Set to the right of the stage, this allowed plenty of space for the fairies to gambol about happily. Act 2 was set in a courtyard at the Palace of Westminster, which, due to its (current) dilapidated state, was clad with clever grey scaffolding! The Fairy Queen had various exciting staffs, which were in themselves a magnificent sight, and the fairies whirled colourful ribbons about very skilfully.

Costumes for the fairies were simple yet effective: black ¾ sleeve T-shirts paired with pretty flowing and flowery skirts, and gossamer wings. There was a super guardsman costume for Private Willis, modern suits for our modern Lords, and an absolutely amazing array of dresses for the Fairy Queen!

An excellent 8-piece orchestra was finely directed by Steven Moore, producing a sweetly mellow sound, sympathetically accompanying the singing. Sound balance in the first half certainly needed a little adjustment. The mikes, four stand mikes in front of the stage, plus many of the cast wearing mikes, meant that the singing was so loud, one was unable to make out the words, as they were distorted, this improved in the second half. Choreography by Anna Lang was good, the stage was well-used, everybody moved well and comfortably.

The curtain opening up to Café Canaletto assured us that we were in for some good fun, and the overture assured us that we were in for some excellent music, no bashing about here, as can sometimes be the case with G and S, but sweet and fine, strong in tone when required, but never overbearing. The appearance of the fairies and their elegant queen set the scene of this harmonious and ‘tranquil civilisation of women’, to quote the Chairman.

Dressed in a wetsuit, the freshly pardoned Iolanthe emerged from her underwater banishment, to be cleverly re-clad in her pretty fairy clothes, before her gentle son Strephon appeared, to greet her with the lovely, lilting melody of ‘Good morrow, good mother’. On the appearance of the charming Phyllis, we had the chance to enjoy this again in the duet ‘Good morrow, good lover’. Excellent performances here from Simon Jenkins and Sally Airey, the two seemed genuinely taken with each other, and their singing and acting delighted throughout.

Enter the Lords and, in this case Ladies, marching to the stage to the tune of ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray!’.  Ridiculous they were of course, but they were ably led by the feisty Lord Tolloller (Pippa Mills).  Peter Francis made a fine Lord Chancellor, scheming over how to win the fair Phyllis for himself, and delighting us with his rendering of ‘The Law is the true embodiment’ and ‘ When I went to the Bar’, and of course the amazing ‘nightmare’ song: ‘When you’re lying awake’.

One undoubted star of the show was Stuart Nash as Private Willis. He looked genuinely proud of his uniform and his position on sentry duty, gave a marvellous rendition of ‘When all night long a chap remains’, and seemed rather wonderfully bashful on becoming the love interest of the glorious Fairy Queen!

But then, which mere mortal would not be overawed by this lady of great presence and authority. Kate Youll revelled in this role and excelled, with ever more flamboyant outfits – especially the final very patriotic one, which would not have been out of place in the Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms! She sang well too!

Beth Mills gave us a nuanced Iolanthe. Slightly scatty at the start, a fond mother, and excellent as she nervously revealed to the Lord High Chancellor that she was the wife he had long thought dead, as she sang ‘My Lord, a suppliant at your feet’. Another great character who cannot be omitted a mention is the Lord Chancellor’s Assistant, played brilliantly by Diane Bradbury, she of the large handbag, who said nothing and sang nothing throughout, but was very much there! A great innovation.

We enjoyed some fine musical ensemble pieces too, Phyllis’s trio with Tolloller and Mountararat, and the quintet ‘My Lords, it may not be’, as well as the fine duets between Phyllis and Strephon.

Director Eleanor Bradbury certainly brought this fine show to life and right up to date with her innovative and humorous ideas, and fine direction. I note that this was the sixth production of Iolanthe by AODS, the first being in 1927. I wonder what the photoshoot then would have looked like! Well done, AODS, a fine tradition of G and S upheld!