Iolanthe review at London Coliseum – ‘crude and misguided’
A new professional production of Iolanthe – arguably the Gilbert and Sullivan opera in which their genius combines to greatest effect – is long overdue.
Sullivan’s sparkling score has more depth than The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance, and the libretto zips along with customary Gilbertian wit and silliness. The absurdly pitted crusty-peers-versus-capricious-fairies war supplies compelling drama, and the parliamentary satire has lost none of its edge since 1882.
Depressingly, director Cal McCrystal has little faith in any of this. Whereas Jonathan Miller’s Mikado, still going strong after 30 years, brings a fresh approach while respecting the original, McCrystal tramples insensitively over Gilbert and Sullivan’s work with crude, unfunny new material and desperate deployment of a pantomime cow.
Blunt references to the “exposed manhood” of half-fairy Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) make explicit what is far funnier in Gilbert’s subtle innuendo, shouty interjections from bit-part fairy Fleta interrupt the flow and unnecessarily prolong the evening, a tender love duet is destroyed by incongruous focus-pulling antics involving stage-hands, and the fairies’ laboured delivery and stilted gestures feel painfully like a send-up.
The production’s virtues shine more brightly in Act II, encumbered by fewer extraneous additions: Paul Brown’s splendid Victorian sets and costumes and an excellent cast led by Andrew Shore’s robust Lord Chancellor and Yvonne Howard’s redoubtable Fairy Queen, with Ben Johnson and Ben McAteer a spot-on aristocratic double-act as Tolloller and Mountararat. There are some brilliant comic touches too. The joyous If You Go In, You’re Sure to Win, fizzes with priceless slapstick.
Stripped of McCrystal’s misguided additions (the biggest laughs still come from Gilbert), English National Opera could yet salvage a production worthy of the piece.