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Thespis

Date

7th November 2018

Society

Betchworth Operatic & Dramatic Society

Venue

Betchworth Village Hall

Type of Production

G&S

Director

Lynda Barrett-Mercer

Musical Director

Ian Stone

Report

Author: Jon Fox

This very first collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, four years prior to "Trial by Jury" was written at the instigation of a London showman named John Hollingshead and ran for only seventy three performances, opening on Boxing day and billed as "A Christmas Operatic Extravaganza".

A flimsy plot by the standard of their later works concerned a weary group of actors who, having ascended Mount Olympus, came upon the Roman Gods grown old and agreed to change places, with the Gods watching on whilst the humans messed things up.

Only two pieces of music survive, one of which is "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain", later used in "The Pirates of Penzance".  In this production, musical director Ian Stone and director Lynda Barrett-Mercer used other music entirely from Gilbert & Sullivan;  wisely in my view, unlike some of the Thespis productions I have seen, which included music by Offenbach.

Though Ian and Lynda used music from a number of the Savoy operas, with much from "Pirates of Penzance" and "Utopia Limited", the opening scene also included that much loved Sullivan air "The Long Day Closes".  Ian's piano playing was excellent, as ever!

A rather effective use of lines of gold stars hanging down the front curtain set the scene atop Mount Olympus, with two artistic screens, three none too smart gold thrones and plenty of vines draped.

Director Lynda had taken over the role of Diana (God of the Moon) at very short notice because of a late cast withdrawal and she opened the dialogue in conversation with Apollo (God of the Sun) played by Colin Bousfield. Following this scene, Mercury (God of Thieves and Messenger) played in a trouser role by Jane Khan, sang rather tunefully to the tune of "Oh, Gentlemen, Listen I pray" about her fate and woes in "It's the Way of the World", backed in effective style by both Colin and Lynda. Jupiter (Father of the Gods) and Mars (God of War) then entered, their human form being Patrick Gallagher and Matt Stainer respectively. Both Patrick and Matt have great stage presence and top class singing voices. But this did not make their characters happy. In this respect we in the audience had the distinct advantage over poor Jupiter and Mars.

The Gods, though in their human form played by a particularly strong cast, were a miserable bunch of moaners who put me in mind more of modern British politicians rather than fearsome Roman Gods!   I blame WS Gilbert entirely, whose libretto was not lost.

It was something of a relief to see the exhausted troupe of Greek actors, led by the outstanding and charismatic David Longes as Thespis, arrive at the summit of their long climb (to "Climbing over Rocky Mountain" which music has survived intact) with their picnic hampers and chairs. In their infinite wisdom they had all provided various ingredients for a ravishing lobster salad. No one however, had thought to provide any lobster - as one does if one is an actor!!

There was a rather mixed up piece of entertaining business with Sparkeion (Carolyn Burnley) and "his" half married wife Nicemis (Margaret Longes), very well sung by both "man" and half-wife to "Oh is there not one Maiden Breast" tune from Pirates of Penzance.

The Greek actors also were bemoaning their fate and upon Jupiter introducing them to the Gods, all were wearing rather effective looking wigs. I thought using "Our Great Mikado, Virtuous Man" rather apt as the humans adopted God's personas.

In Act two, I chuckled at the use of prominently displayed Ambrosia Rice pudding tins on the table, as they were in "Ambrosia" to a tune from  Princess Ida. "Little Maid of Arcady",  the only other surviving music from Sullivan's score, was sung well by Sparkeion (Carolyn) while the couple lay canoodling on a bench. The scene with two women, Nicemis and Daphne both claiming "Apollo" (Sparkeion) as their husband was dramatically and amusingly carried out.

Two of the most effective musical items were the hauntingly beautiful quartet "You're Diana, I'm Apollo" to The Gondoliers' "In a Contemplative Fashion" performed by Thespis (David), Nicemis (Margaret), Sparkeion (Carolyn) and Daphne (Jane Johnson). The other dramatically and vocally excellent trio was "Oh Rage and Fury" ("Away, Away") by Apollo, Jupiter and Mars (Colin, Patrick and Matt).  I thought this was true professional standard!!

The petitions scene was well played and suitably dramatic. Wine growers only growing "ginger beer", not real beer, made me chuckle. I liked the drama as four masked Gods sat in judgement upon the mortals many mistakes. How apt then was "He is telling a terrible story" (Pirates)!

The Gods having suitably admonished the Thespians for their incompetence and all having finally re-exchanged places, the Gods and Thespians joined together in a rousing finale with excellent singing.

Other excellent players I have not specifically mentioned for brevity reasons were Julian Warner-Edney (Preposteros), Julie Bickerdike (Prettiea), Stephen Tickell (Timidon) and Tipseion (Jane Seymour). Making a fine thirteen strong cast with not a single weak link, doing Lynda and Ian proud.

Lighting and sound were handled in sure fashion by Davis Ames with both LFX and SFX playing an important part in the fine dramatic success of the piece.

The costumes and wardrobe did the show proud (including wigs).   I was surprised that the programme failed to credit those responsible, as these are an essential part of theatre and should always merit a programme credit, at the very least. I do know, privately, that director Lynda had great personal input in this area. I strongly suggest this obvious omission should not happen again.

All in all - even though the plot is far from Gilbert's best - I found this rarely performed piece a resounding success. The show had pace, continuity, constant humour, pathos, a fine cast and well used stage craft.