Thursday, 18 August 2011

Festival Production: Iolanthe

Every show in the Festival opens with an overture, so it makes sense that this review open with a few comments about them. So far this year, I have not seen any shows with cheesy business during the overture; there's always been just the curtain with green warmers (and occasionally the house lights), and everyone listening in silence to the excellent Festival Orchestra which, night after night, has played superbly. In comparing one show to another, it's useless to discuss the overtures - no musical director has been so appalling as to be noteworthy - but in describing the Festival itself, they're delightful demonstration of the skill of the musicians; the material is perhaps familiar with them, but each conductor has his own style, and the orchestra gets only one run with each MD.

Iolanthe has a good share of superb music. It's been well represented in the community singing selections in the Festival Club; although we've only gone up on stage for the Peers March twice this year, down from about four or five times in the last festival we were in (two years ago). The title character's music is soft and beautiful. It needs to be played well, and this orchestra and tonight's conductor John Howells have handled it appropriately.

The aforementioned Title Character (Bryony Wilmington) has a lovely, sweet voice, although her diction did impact her audibility in the gallery. Her all-important second act scene was beautiful, as long as you already knew what she was singing; the attention of the Lord Chancellor (David Kay) was fixed on her at all times (she may have wanted to make more use of her veil though - I guess it's a magical one that doesn't need her to keep her hand at the level of her eye). The Chancellor's exteme energy was appropriately muted for that grand scene, but was in evidence at all other times - particularly during encores, of which we had a Gillian-satisfying half dozen - even to the consternation of his closest companions, the Lords Mountararat (John Colston) and Tolloller (David Brown). The co-leaders of the House of Lords, as inseparable as when they'd been boys together (well, one of them had), walked their minds through the maze of who was to destroy whom with passion and fervour and grace (okay, maybe grace isn't really what two noble peers would demonstrate, but close enough), with an utterly-bored Phyllis (Shelley Anne Rivers) upstage having a glass of wine with a robed peer of indeterminate party membership; if I'd been in her place, I would have just walked up to the backcloth and selected a book to read (c'mon, don't tell me you can't see the bookshelves in the depiction of that cityscape!), but apparently she's happy with the society of gentlemen who aren't totally fawning over her as they all were during the business of the day. This included her boyfriend at that time, too, and nastily probing the subject of mothers with Strephon (Anthony Mahon). He took it in his stride, casually explaining his mixed ancestry with an air of finality and a calmness that, oddly, corresponded to the way he was on their first meeting - a little enthusiasm would not go amiss. He does love Phyllis, although he's perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer - a little discretion in how he addresses his mother would have spared him a lot of pain (but we'd have missed out on the whole second act). In contrast, Private Willis (Ian Murray) talks less but has the brain and cerebellum too; and he has a good strong voice with which to deliver his thoughts to the audience. He's perfectly comfortable discussing his personal appearance with the Fairy Queen (Alison Davis), who is so taken by him that she breaks off her sentence as he walks in; all the fairies are impressed by him, but apparently they can do better - Celia (Victoria Goulden) and Leila (Holly Parker-Strawson) take the Lords Tollollerat for their money, and Fleta (Pauline Hepkin) waits until the very VERY end before pairing off (somewhat unexpectedly) with the Lord Chancellor's elderly page! It looked a little odd, with an unpaired Fleta downstage and several doubled-up "pairs" upstage, until she slipped into the wings and came back with her beloved.

Lighting tonight was handled skilfully. Subtle changes of mood, major changes of illumination, and also effects such as for Strephon's entrance, in which the fairies froze upstage in gloom while Strephon and Iolanthe conversed downstage in the light (actually, on the edge of the shadow, but that's insignificant), and a superb moment when the lights went down to a couple of cross lights for Phyllis's "For riches and rank I do not long" - she was right smack in the middle of the cross fire, in just the right spot when the lights changed.

Much has been said about cast having fun. I have no doubt that the members of this company had a lot of fun. And so did we.

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