Satire may not be quite timeless, but it keeps well. WS Gilbert wrote his libretto for Iolanthe in 1882, sending up many things but mostly the hereditary peerage; now, not two decades after the House of Lords Act finally clipped those blue-blooded wings, there are lines in it that could have been written yesterday. Best not to think too hard about that – and besides, deep thought is not what is invited by ENO’s latest venture into Gilbert and Sullivan, a production of Iolanthe couched by director Cal McCrystal and designer Paul Brown in froth and good-natured silliness.
It’s a fittingly exuberant farewell from Brown, who died in November. Within a gilded proscenium, a pastoral idyll of gaudy flowers and oil-painted Arcadian scenes gives way to a Parliament complete with a woolsack that emerges, revolving, from the floor. There’s a unicorn, a horse, a flamingo, several sheep and a pantomime cow. The lords’ adversaries are the fairies, envisaged by Brown as a riotous mash-up of every child’s picture book and dressing-up box ever. As is pointed out in the spoken introduction, they definitely don’t all look like the dainty beings the libretto talks about, but that was Gilbert’s point.
The introduction, an invention of McCrystal and his co-writer Toby Davies, is a rather laboured way of attempting to loosen up the audience and, in the bewhiskered form of actor Clive Mantle, to introduce Captain Shaw, the real historical chief of the London fire service lusted after by the Queen of the Fairies in her act two number. McCrystal works hard to keep this topical reference to an 1880s celebrity; but, unlike Jonathan Miller’s Mikado and its Little List, he largely steers clear of today’s satire-worthy figures, even though the targets are so hittable.
That said, one peer has Boris Johnson hair and one looks a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that, after they and the rest of the men’s chorus make their spectacular first entrance in a steam engine, it is they who get to reverse it off the stage – a cliff, presumably, not being available.
McCrystal, best known for his work on One Man, Two Guvnors and the Paddington films, specialises in slapstick and physical comedy, and this is winningly to the fore in the trio for the Chancellor and two lords, with rubber-limbed pageboy Richard Leeming getting put through the mill. Not all the jokes hit home quite so squarely – the Coliseum is much bigger than Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy, and even this cast’s good diction can’t always get past that – but many do, and during this relatively long run timing will improve.
In vocal terms, the cast is already fine, as is the orchestra and chorus, warmly conducted by G&S specialist Timothy Henty. Samantha Price sings the title role beautifully, Marcus Farnsworth brings a honeyed baritone to the half-fairy Strephon, and Ellie Laugharne sounds sparkling if slightly underpowered as Phyllis. Ben McAteer and Ben Johnson judge things finely as her two lordly suitors, and Yvonne Howard is in her element as the Queen of the Fairies, dispensing pyrotechnics from her spear. Barnaby Rea makes much of the guardsman’s aria poking fun at the two-party system, and Andrew Shore owns the stage as the Lord Chancellor. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to try to get the ENO audience to sing along, but credit to him for managing it.