I wasn’t familiar with Ruddigore, which is apparently one of the least performed operettas in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, but I’m enthusiastically aware of Charles Court Opera since I saw their hysterical reworking of Patience this past summer. I’ve believed for years that, in the right hands, Gilbert and Sullivan positively shines; but it takes a lot of work to blow off the dust and get to the diamonds of comedy and song-craft beneath. Sasha Regan has been doing it for years with her all male shows: Charles Court’s decision to people Patience with Goths showed similar anti-fustiness tendencies. So they set Ruddigore as a Hammer Horror style fright show? Bring it!
Initially, it’s a little hard to stomach the pastel costumes of the professional bridesmaids, Ruth (Susanna Buckle) and Zorah (Andrea Tweedale), but their singing is lovely. However, as the story begins to unfold, I had more than a bit of a whiff of Patience – we once again had “lovesick maidens” being thwarted by a comically disinterested heroine – only this time, Rose Maybud (Rebecca Moon) can’t fall in love because nobody can meet her standards of etiquette. Despite having nearly the same mentality as Patience, she is actually a comic heroine drawn in fantastically broad strokes – an instant classic. Carrying around her little book of advice and referring to it in every situation – she’s a character I’ll remember for ages. But it still seems like G&S were running short of ideas at this point in their careers, because when she has her first duet with the man she loves (“I know a youth”) the structure seemed almost exactly lifted from Patience’s “Prithee, pretty maiden.” But, again, Rose and “Robin” (Matthew Kellet) are lovely singers and fun to watch, so it was a pleasure even if it didn’t feel fresh.
Fortunately, the plot, which had been starting to flounder, picks up mightily with the introduction of sailor Richard Dauntless (Philip Lee), who not only gets to talk in a broad Cornish accent but dances a hornpipe AND gets to flirt with all of the ladies. Shortly after he appears, we move on to the real fun, which is the story of the bad baronets of Ruddigore. To my pleasure, this meant the return to the stage of John Savournin, who’d nearly killed me with laughter as the dame of Charles Court’s panto. And, to make it better, he had a starring role in the second half, as a dead Count Ruddigore – I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but with a face as mobile as his, he was born to the role. Not to mention he does have such a buttery voice (if you can say buttery when talking about a deep baritone). The Ruddigore element is where the Hammer Horror staging really came to the fore – we had cheesy capes, Wascally Wabbit stalkings, and lots of screams. And, of course, it was shot through with the natural comedy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lyrics and all of their joyous music (including, I was told, a song that is normally cut). This performance proved to me, once again, that Gilbert and Sullivan is alive and well and sparkling on the London stages, as eternally relevant as Shakespeare but with a lot more room for run. And – three times a charm – I’m now fully sold on Charles Court Opera and will henceforth be putting all of their performances in my calendar.
(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Thursday, February 19, 2015. It continues through March 14th.)