UniFest opens with a show that is, canon-wise, almost the complete opposite to last night's. The problem with Pirates is that it's easy to make something that's indistinguishable from the millions of other Pirateses and thus unexciting. The Grand Duke, on the other hand, being much more rarely performed, almost guarantees by itself that the show will be unique.
And this guarantee is reflected in ticket sales. There are a few empty seats around, but not that many. I'm sure there'll be quite a variety of opinions expressed about the show - opinions seem to follow normal distribution - but this one happens to be mine. Views expressed herein are not the views of my employer, budgerigar, or pet rock.
I didn't get a programme and therefore can't run through the cast by name at this point, but perhaps I'll edit this post later and add names. One name I do know, though, and that's the Baroness, played by Krisztina Rakoczy (who is Hungarian, yet the lines in the show about a Hungarian are aimed at Julia); when the programme went to print, it was believed that she would be unable to perform, and her understudy's name went in instead.
So instead of my usual paragraph of all the principal players, I'll run through a series of scenes instead. With a cast of this size, that's probably more appropriate anyway. Before the overture was some dialogue which felt a bit clumsy and contrived, until it resolved itself into a reminder to dispose of horribly anachronistic mobile phones. The Sausage Roll song was excellent, with a goodly number of the disgusting pastries being passed around... and probably most of them left completely uneaten, though a few did get a bite taken out of them before being thrust strongly back (I guess the secret sign isn't concerned how MUCH of the roll gets 'et'). Every scene involving chaotic noise from the chorus was absolutely believable - students are experts at mucking up in class, right? And the several scenes involving the clockface - the first one was ill-lit, but after that the elevated performers were more visible. Come Bumpers was hugely fun, with the scene absolutely stolen by one somewhat inebriated member of the company and her continued inebriatory efforts. Similarly fun, the reception ceremony - jugglers, dancers, busy busy busy. But noteworthy above all of the above is the "die is cast" scene... everyone freezes but Lisa, the lights fade to just a spot on her, and time stops until the chorus response. Beautiful, so beautiful.
I have to say, though, I didn't like the insertion of With Wily Brain into the second act. The dialogue to lead into it felt forced and artificial, and while you may complain that Gilbert wasn't at his best in Grand Duke, it's still very unusual to find rewriters who can best him. Even just trimming a few lines here and there requires a very careful and expert hand, and writing new dialogue to fit the show really demands a near-equivalent wordsmith. The same with the inserted/edited dialogue at the end of the show; nice idea, to provide a little justification for what's happening, but I'd rather see a show that leaves us wondering "So how did X and Y happen?" half an hour later than one that has you facepalming in the show itself.
But to put that in proper perspective, I did enjoy the show. The Grand Duke is not so rarely performed that even a poor production is enjoyable (as would be true of, say, The Beauty Stone); there is definitely a bar above which are "good productions worth seeing" and below which are "trash that would be better forgotten". There is no doubt (in my mind... see above, this is not my pet rock's or red-faced baboon's opinion, nor that of the Boy Scouts Association of Antarctica) that this show is clearly above that bar, and distinctly above; these performers enjoy what they're doing, and that enjoyment, coupled with skill and a great collection of voices, translates into an afternoon that I'm glad to have been at.