Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe: The Peer and the Peri premiered at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1882. Over 130 years later, Nottingham University’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society perform the same show, and it hasn’t aged a bit. The Society have put on a performance of remarkable freshness which should immediately convince any doubters that they have maintained the balance which makes Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas so remarkable: expertly and meticulously crafted in terms of music and lyrics, the shows wear this lightly, and are such a pleasure to sit through and immerse oneself in that it almost feels like overindulgence.
The story takes the form of a gentle political satire: so gentle, in fact, that the adversaries of the politicians are not revolutionaries but Peri (a Persian word for ‘fairy’). The two parties are brought together when Strephon, Iolanthe’s half-fairy, half-mortal son, falls in love with Phyllis, a Ward of the Lord Chancellor’s. The Lord Chancellor, with amorous intentions of his own, refuses to give his consent; the fairies, by various machinations – beginning by moving Strephon into Parliament – contrive to confound the Lord Chancellor’s decision.
W.S. Gilbert was a comic poet in his own right before the operas, and shows remarkable verbal dexterity with his lyrics: keeping up with them requires vocal dexterity just as remarkable, a challenge which the cast met brilliantly. David Beddard greatly impresses as the Lord Chancellor, a character who combines both stiff uprightness and unmitigated silliness; Iolanthe’s character becomes etched in the memory through the lovely voice of Alice Edgeworth; and Kay Bassett gives a convincing turn as the Fairy Queen.
But it is difficult to choose standout performances, for in this small cast, the standard was consistently high. The strongest scenes, indeed, are the scenes where the majority of the cast, if not all, are onstage: the combination of several brilliant voices singing in unison was stunning. Likewise the two groups – the Peers and the Fairies – have been very well coordinated, are played brilliantly, and their set-pieces are invariably good fun.
The set is kept very simple: some tables, chairs and plants are virtually all that is needed. The setting was always clear, though, and the performances strong enough that the minimal visual aid did not prove an obstacle. The costume likewise: the Peers were in suits and capes, the Fairies – bar the Queen, who wore a regal-looking dress – pink all over, as stereotypically girly as they come. I wasn’t quite as happy about the choice of costume for the fairies, which was worlds apart from the Arcadian setting they are meant to inhabit and too close to the cliché, Christmas tree image.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas are an almost perfect pleasure, akin to musicals without the cheesiness and operas without the dryness. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society here have done justice to their progenitors, and their show provides the ideal antidote after a solid week of essay-writing: the world suddenly feels right again.
Iolanthe is showing until Saturday 23 March at Nottingham Arts Theatre. See website for ticket details: http://www.nottingham-theatre.co.uk/natmain/whats-on?name=Iolanthe&show=243766