By Thomas Pymer
The only thing you need to know about the plot of ‘Iolanthe’ is that it centres on a feud between a band of very sassy fairies versus the House of Lords. That should be more than enough to convey to you the silliness and the fun of the piece.
It is a funniness that the cast carries incredibly well. I always enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan’s dry and paradoxical satire, but the cast does it supreme justice. The expressions on the faces of the Lords when the fairies threaten to cast a spell making membership of the House of Lords attainable “by competitive examination!” was priceless. Hannah Thomson’s Phyllis brings the house down when she assures her half-fairy lover Strephon (Adam Brown) that “whenever I see you kissing a young attractive female, I shall know it is an elderly relative.” Through a combination of impeccable timing and complete deadpan, the humour is beautifully captured.
Of the characters, I must pick out two: the arrogant and bureaucratic but basically loveable Lord Chancellor, played by Rory McNeilage, and the imperious but kindly Queen of the Fairies, played by Kate Sweet. These two dominate every scene they were in, and the air crackles when they face each other down in the first dramatic confrontation between fairies and lords. McNeilage is to be praised for his singing of the fastest song in the entire opera, and for never breaking character whilst doing so.
This leads me rather nicely to praising the songs. There were some beautiful voices among the cast. Poppy Metherell’s (Iolanthe) tearful lament to the Lord Chancellor on behalf of her son (Strephon) brings a lump to the throat. Alex Akhurst and Max Halcox have us roaring with laughter as their Lords Tolloller and Mountratat sing about their friendship whilst vainly trying to resist each other, as does Leo Thomson’s Private Willis and his dry observation that “every boy and every girl born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative”. The Lords and the fairies have me beating time with my pen on my notebook with their cheerful and chirpy ditties. We ourselves get to join in with the opening rendition of the National Anthem (for reasons that were never quite adequately explained).
Behind every great operatic cast lies a great orchestra, and this orchestra is no exception. Conducted by Nathan Smith (complete with fairy wings), they kept their timing perfectly. They set the whole thing off brilliantly.
I also have to mention the costume design, which is simply fantastic. The fairies wear lovely green dresses vaguely reminiscent of Tinkerbell. The lords have wonderful suits which fitted them to a T and make your reporter feel very jealous. Sweet has a lovely white dress and a crown of flowers, whilst McNeilage alternates between robes and pyjamas, somehow managing to make both look equally good. The costumes, in part, make the performance.
It is to my regret that I must now raise a couple of criticisms. The first concerns staging. There is no staging and not many props, and this is a problem. When there are props, like the extensive scroll of Fairie Law, they are wonderful. But plays, and musicals/operas in particular, thrive so much better with scenery. I understand entirely that money is tight for student productions, especially for something that needs to be thrown together after exams, but it is something of a let-down.
The second criticism I would raise is that some of the songs are a little quiet. The actors would do well to ensure they enunciated their words. This is much more of a problem in the first act, by the second everyone does much better. Neither of these problems are extreme, hence why I have only mild qualms about awarding it the full five stars.
However, I’d gladly see it all over again. It remains only to invite the fairies to interfere in politics again and sort out the Tory leadership contest. To everyone else, once you have watched this opera you will not doubt their abilities to do so.
DOE’s Iolanthe is being performed at Leech Hall, St John’s College, on Sunday 23rd at 19:30.