The professionals are back! And with them they bring the results of many rehearsal hours. The standard at the Festival is much higher than what I'm used to at home; what I would call "excellent" or "superb" at home is the general level of "noteworthily good" here, and what I call "excellent" here is... well, I wouldn't have a term for it at home because I wouldn't see it often enough. Most notable in this is the precision of ensemble movements and diction; finishing the word "parliament" in perfect synchronization, or moving all the wands/crowns precisely together, requires a cast with no weak members AND hours of drilling. We saw both, tonight.
(I do wonder, though: How can Phyllis not notice that Strephon's consort wore wings? They were in full view. Hmm, perhaps that's one of the "good many things" that Iolanthe's fairyhood explains?)
The show starred and was directed by Simon Butteriss, whose Lord Chancellor exited the stage at every opportunity, presumably making the direction easier. His dutiful attendant page was not named in the programme. The Chancellor seldom entered alone; though the Page did get some time off, such as when Iolanthe declares herself to be a suppliant at the LC's feet, and he sighs with a look of "Oh, not another...", then dismisses his Page into the wings. The two work well (and closely) together; some of his long speeches (notably "Victory! Victory!") are delivered to his long-suffering aide. But the relationship is not all one-sided. At the end of the Nightmare Song, it's the chancellor who's on the floor and the page who's sitting on him, until the remark that he'd really like to trade 'position' with one of the two earls who, unsurprisingly, aren't being sat on at that moment! And those Earls Tollollerat (John Upperton and Bruce Graham, respectively) may not have had all that much in the way of brains (by Mountararat's admission), but that's hardly a downside to MPs - less to leave outside. The script tells us that Tolloller leads the House, but the staging definitely has both of them doing an excellent job of leading the chorus around; the exit after "Neath this blow, worse than stab of dagger" was swift and smooth, dignified and well stepped. And when it came to poking fun at a young man who goes about with a younger mother, well, they clearly lead the way! The chaos fills the stage until the Fairy Queen (Frances McCafferty) enters like the imposing Elinor, striding downstage calmly, parting the fight and subduing it. Some are born to rule; others acquire that right by having a whole chorus of immortal daughters, each wielding supernatural power. Yeah, I'd get out of her way too! Or if she calls, I'd go over fairly promptly, as did Private Willis (Alastair McCall). Plus, getting your own set of wings isn't bad (and it looks far beter than tuppence-worth of paper and string), not to mention the whole "helping a female in this dress" thing. Oh what a tangled web... the changes made to keep one erring fairy from being executed. I hope Iolanthe (Victoria Byron) appreciates the trouble her queen has gone to. Also the trouble her lighting crew have gone to; she enters first (covered in weeds) with a green follow spot, and then when she is pardoned, the spot changes color smoothly and without a hitch. To be sure, the show could have worked just fine without that; but it's an excellent effect that definitely adds its own little something! (Speaking of the spots, one of them followed Iolanthe like a good trackpoint as she was literally cast from the Chancellor's presence when he declared that Phyllis was his chosen bride. Fast movement, small spot.) She wished to live near her son Strephon (Simon Pontin), though presumably he grew up quite separately, for he had a strong accent that she did not. He and his beloved Phyllis (Charlotte Baptie) underwent a fairly significant change in the second act, from being rustic shepherds (even being a Ward in Chancery doesn't force a girl to dress like she's upper-class) to being "respectable" (being engaged to two noblemen at once does); in the first act, neither wears shoes, and then when they decide that they'll get married at once (and change their minds afterward), they divest themselves of such trivial annoyances and at first opportunity, return to their shepherding clothes. I foresee a long and happy future for them, raising sheep.
There are a million and one small neatnesses to the show that make it well worth watching, but are too numerous to list. All I can say is, there are two more performances tomorrow, and DVDs after that, so you can find out for yourself what the show's like. I won't say it's the best Iolanthe you've ever seen, in case it's not true, but it's certainly a solid production and it holds itself well.