Review – Iolanthe – Union Theatre

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Sasha Regan’s “Iolanthe,” currently sold out for the remainder of its Union Theatre run, proves once again that when it comes to putting the magic into musicals, she has the perfect touch. With merely a piano and a pile of costumes cobbled together out of a charity shop’s cast-offs – and a stupendous cast – she’s taken a rag-and-bone Gilbert and Sullivan leftover and turned it into an evening of such artistic intensity it had one of my friends tearing up. Gilbert and Sullivan, people: the kings of Victorian treacle, the princes of patter, the Grande Dames of Ham, I don’t think of them as aspiring to anything more than cleverness, and even that is frequently utterly squashed beneath a foot thick maudlin icing.

Still, rushing into the crowded, dank theater to take my dunces seat behind a pillar, I had hope (and an utter ignorance of the plot). The lights went down, the piano began to tinkle away (I thought I could hear it saying, “Iolanthe!”), and handfulls of young men came in to explore what now seemed to be a school attic, full of old clothes, sports equipment, and spare furniture. They ran off as the overture ended, then returned dressed in the finery they’d rescued from the walls and wardrobe – old nighties, Victorian tops and knickers, girdles and gowns, accessorized with wings made of nets, pennants, and adorable little badminton birdes. They were still very much boys, but boys with a little bit of extra sparkle and lip gloss – in fact, they’d been transformed into a band of fairies! They launched into their first song (“Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither,” thanks to the Boise State Gilbert & Sullivan Archive for the titles) with somewhat reedy falsetto voices, and while I found myself a bit suspicious of the singing quality, I was thoroughly sold by the delivery and the really energetic choreography – these fairies couldn’t fly but they sure could leap!

Brilliant move number one was when the Fairy Queen came on stage – a burly fellow with a dead coyote tossed over his shoulder in a way that somehow suggested Scottish formalwear (more directly referred to later when a gent appeared wearing a dust-mop sporran – hysterical!). As solidly built as he was, to me he really had a regal air and sense of power – perfect for the role! He was also just exceedingly handsome. Once he appeared, the magic of theater basically flew in the door like snow through an open window, and I was no longer confused by, “Hey, these are men playing fairies, aren’t these rolees supposed to be done by girls?” I’d bought the conceit of the “boys having fun on a lark,” the sort of Peter Pan meets Narnia feeling, but after this I headed straight into “being lost in a show-land,” which is really where I want to be, not analyzing, questioning, and criticizing, but just unabashedly enjoying myself (and occasionally going, “Ooh, yummy!”).

Now, the plot of this show is very silly, as it’s about a half human/half fairy boy who is put into parliament with the help of his supernatural relatives, and is just as much about the comedy that is politics (a never-ending source of humor through the ages, I am thinking) as it is a comedy of love, and occasionally I found a song, well, longing to be cut, but generally most of the singing was good and I very much enjoyed the ride that I was being taken on. And as for the cross-gender casting, well, what I saw was a cast that devoted themselves to acting, to being their characters, neither camping it up nor engaging in the sort of “we know this is all corny” nudge-and-wink acting I associate with most G&S, and through their efforts actually managing to get to the heart of the show, which is ultimately about human concerns: about love, betrayal, sacrifice, and mortality. When Iolanthe sang, diagonally across the stage to the rather glowing young chancellor, “My Lord, a suppliant at your feet,” begging that he take pity on her son – a plea that in the end will cost her her own life – its fragility captured perfectly her own exposure at letting herself appear in the human world, but also the deep love that would cause a mother to make a move that would put herself at risk of death for her child. It’s easy to laugh about a play who has as a main character a man who’s “human from the waistcoat down” – but the feelings underneath it are universal – and well served by this production. While this production is not one for opera fanatics, for both general theater lovers and Gilbert and Sullivan diehards, the emotional range and genuine magic are ones that make it a must-see. And I’m afraid some of the “fairy dust” will likely be left behind if it transfers: there’s something about having actors whispering in your ear that makes the suspension of disbelief all so much easier. Call and ask for returns, and brave the wait at the door if you must; Iolanthe is a must see.

(This review is for a production that took place on November 28th. The show runs through December 11th. To be honest Strephon was a bit weak – a friend of mine called him an energy suck – but that’s all been forgotten three days later. Apologies for not giving any credits but I’m afraid I lost my program.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Iolanthe – Union Theatre”

  1. Tweets that mention Review – Iolanthe – Union Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cloud Dance Festival, webcowgirl. webcowgirl said: Review, Iolanthe @uniontheatre http://bit.ly/f3ubye My suspicion: Sasha Regan has fairy dust in her veins as she's again made magic happen […]

  2. Review – All Male H.M.S. Pinafore – Union Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] by making the performers a group of friends doing something for themselves (for example, in Iolanthe, they were kids at a boarding school), the audience is provided a context for both why the cast is male and why they might suddenly […]

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