Iolanthe, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2018

“A group of bombastic fairies going into battle with all these silly old buggers from the House of Lords” says director Cal McCrystal “… joyful and fun, with a hint of satirical steel”.

Queen of the Fairies and Iolanthe, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

McCrystal has a knack, a brilliant knack, of knowing what makes an audience laugh, never more so than in the Act II trio “Faint heart never won fair lady” where the chinless, rag-doll Page Boy of actor Richard Leeming exits one side of the stage, reappearing instantly on the other to collapse in some new fashion as the audience itself collapsed with laughter. Slapstick, yes, but brilliant comic timing.

The Act II trio

Yet this was hugely musical too under the baton of Gilbert and Sullivan expert Timothy Henty, working from his new version of the score based on Sullivan’s autographed original. Henty’s experience of conducting ballet showed through in the dance sequences, delightfully choreographed by Lizzi Gee, that were always bang on the music. Incomparably better than the drearily unmusical choreography on offer in the Royal Opera’s new Carmen at Covent Garden, a production interrupted by an inserted narrative, while this continuous romp showed there is still something right with the world.

Lords arrive

Right and wrong of course because this was Gilbert’s most satirical libretto, poking fun at the Lords and the law, with modern concerns visible in a Boris Johnson look-alike among the peers, and was that Jacob Rees-Mogg too? A massive steam train full of Lords brought down the backdrop in a fine Act I coup de théâtre, with Tolloller and Mountararat later climbing onto it. Superbly sung by Ben Johnson and Ben McAteer, one a head taller than the other, they were complemented by the excellent Andrew Shore as Lord Chancellor, and Yvonne Howard as a wittily dominant Queen of the Fairies.

A lovely Phyllis by Ellie Laugharne, a full firm voice from Marcus Farnsworth as her beloved Strephon, and a delightful fairy mother Iolanthe by ENO Harewood artist Samantha Price. Marvellous presence and wit by Clive Mantle as Captain Shaw, master of ceremonies and leader of the London Fire Brigade, and a fine cockney accent from Barnaby Rea as an upright Private Willis. Terrific performances from the chorus members, all brought so expertly together by Cal McCrystal.

Tap dancing by Strephon and Phyllis

The audience for the Saturday matinee loved it, and even though the low budget eliminated professional acrobats and live animals, designs by the late, lamented Paul Brown, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, included a marvellously elaborate proscenium arch featuring sculptures of fairies. Here is staging and performance deserving the full support of the Arts Council, for in these times of overstretched political correctness we need laughter, satire and yes, a sense of humour. More of this please.

Performances continue on various dates until April 7 — for details click here.

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