Utopia Limited

Date 10th March 2017
Society Astwood Bank Operatic Society
Venue Palace Theatre Redditch
Type of Production Musical
Director Steve Skinner
Musical Director Tom Porter

Report

Author: Andy Brown

Having seen every Gilbert and Sullivan, many numerous times, I was pleased to hear of Astwood Bank’s intention to perform Utopia Limited, the only one I had never seen.  This was not the first time Astwood Bank had performed this show and for some in the company it held special memories of those earlier productions.

This was the 13th collaboration between the partnership of WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. The show opened at the Savoy Theatre in October 1893 some two years after The Gondoliers closed and following the famous carpet quarrel. The partnership was never to be the same again with only one further piece The Grand Duke following this one. Utopia Limited portrayed the bitterness felt by Gilbert.

Set on an island in the south seas the Queen of Utopia decides her county needs reforming to become more like Britain. This is against the wishes of Scaphio and Phantis – Judges of the Utopia Supreme Court. Enter Princess Zara who returns from England with six consultants, the Flowers of Progress, to join her sisters Princess Nekaya and Princess Kalyba and their English Governess Lady Sophy.    

What follows is a satire of all things British such as imperialism, the monarchy, party politics, the establishment, limited liabilities and tabloid press.  

This was a very colourful production involving good costumes. The music was clearly the work of Arthur Sullivan including a short rendition from HMS Pinafore.  Dispersed within the piece were other work such as snippets of Rule Britannia.  

There was a large cast who collectively delivered a difficult and demanding piece. With a total of 16 named parts it’s not possible to name everyone. Her Magnificence The Queen of Utopia was superbly played by Carole Massey. She played a great character and I am sure I should know who she reminded me of!  Her son Prince Paramount the over keen heir to the throne was equally well played by Stewart Vick. An heir waiting to take his turn to become King (again not sure who this was based upon). Vick also played Tarara the public exploder, who made several attempts to blow the Queen up. This was one of several changes to the original libretto made by the director Steve Skinner in order to best suit the company and remove sub plots which remained unresolved in the original production.    

Scaphio and Phantis, played by Richard Needham and Keith Williams worked well together affording a most humorous encounter with a hammock and even receiving boos from the audience in the style of pantomime bad guys. There were other funny moments in the show including a scene when the Six Flowers, The Queen and the Prince adopted bells, handkerchiefs and whiffling sticks just like everyone does in Britain and engaged in a Morris dance. 

The Flowers of Progress were all well played. Of particular note however were Michael Hawkins who played and sang the part of Captain Corcoran ex of HMS Pinafore Naval Adviser well and Melanie Hart for her characterisation of County Councillor Bunty Blushington.

The younger princesses played by Sophie Hill and Cara Brimmell were a perfect pairing. Their excellent timing with their well-choreographed numbers provided one of the highlights of the show.  

There were without doubt some nice singing voices in the company especially Jo Hargreaves as Princess Zara and her suitor Michael Ferris as Captain Fitzbattleaxe as well as Ellie Peberdy as the official Lady Sophy.    

There did seem to be some sound issues as unfortunately some people’s dialogue and lyrics to several songs were not always totally audible. This was a great shame as I am sure these contained a significant amount of Gilbert’s humour and unlike most of his work are unknown to most of the audience. Some of the musical numbers were lengthy and not easy for the actors to sing. It was evident some cast were unsure at times of their words or due to the speed of the score words were missed.

The sets were effective with hired cloths. Other items of scenery such as a beach bar used during the first act were built by the company and of a noteworthy standard.  The lighting was simple but had nice touches especially during the duets. 

Despite the difficulties encountered with some of the sound I applaud Astwood Bank Operatic Society for staging this almost unknown piece of work. It would have been so much easier to stick with the tried and tested such as The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado. I have attended Astwood Bank Operatic Society for many years but this was the first time as a NODA Regional Representative. I look forward to future productions by this company not least ‘Carousel’ next year.