When musical director Justine Willsher raises her baton in the Powerhouse Theatre and leads her 17-piece orchestra in the overture to Iolanthe you are rapidly absorbed into a fantasy world of music, romance and political satire. You know almost immediately that this is going to be a fun night and flautist Christine Tetley soon reminds you what a wonderful instrument the flute is when played well. By the time you reach the first rousing duet between our young lovers Strephon (Brett Fahey) and Phyllis (Ruth Lloyd Bridgstock) you are completely absorbed in the fiction and folly of this evergreen Gilbert and Sullivan musical.
Ms Bridgstock hails from Wales, and is yet another fine and powerful voice in the assembly line of fine and powerful Welsh voices that we admire. She is positively delightful in her role as a vain and beautiful young ward keen to marry Strephon. Only her legal guardian, the Lord Chancellor (Brian Cahill) stands in her way, preferring instead the claims of two peers, the Earl of Mountararat (Steven Beck) and the Earl Tolloller (Matthew Parakas) to those of the young shepherd Strephon.
To this already complex situation we have the added complication of Strephon’s heritage as the offspring of an ill-fated marriage between the fairy princess Iolanthe and a human being. Fairies, as we all know, are not permitted to marry humans. As a result of the union Strephon is half fairy (the top half) and half man (from the waist down) and trapped behind two equally complex and fanciful worlds.
The backdrops starkly define the two worlds the fantasy tinged fairyland woods and gardens for the first half of the performance and the Houses of Parliament after intermission. Director Eric Hauff and his enthusiastic team of choristers have a lot of fun with Iolanthe. Mr Hauff has assembled an excellent team and his chorus of fairies and peers sing in well-blended harmony.
Brian Cahill brings a sense of whimsy, excellent comic timing and long experience to the central role of Lord Chancellor. Ros Booth is convincing as Queen of the Fairies while Aimee Cross (Iolanthe) almost makes you believe she is both 17, and the mother of a 24-year-old son an apparent contradiction on which much of the plot swings.
The production makes the most of its strengths, particularly the quality of the voices, and makes light of its limitations. For instance, some of our dancing fairies aren’t as youthful or supple as they once were, yet choreographer Tamsin Sutherland has cleverly incorporated them into a number of balletic interludes. Given the zest with which the more mature cast have embraced Iolanthe it may even be true that fairies never grow old.
A real feature of the production is the clarity and projection of the voices. Almost every word of every performer could be heard and understood. Justine Willsher keeps the volume under control and ensures the orchestra complements rather than competes with the voices. Her exuberant personality and interaction with the audience is an unexpected bonus.
The Gilbertian school of humour is unique and peculiar. It may not endure, but it has made its mark. Neither Mr Gilbert as an author, nor Mr Sullivan as a musician, write for immortality. The school they have founded may not, perhaps, last far beyond their own time; nor can it be said that their operas are likely to confer any benefit upon the future lyric stage. Review of the first performance of Iolanthe (1882)