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A romp from start to finish: Baroness Andrews reviews 'Iolanthe'

Samantha Price (Iolanthe) with John Savournin (Lord Chancellor) | Image © Craig Fuller

Baroness Andrews

Baroness Andrews

4 min read

Part pantomime, part political satire, the ENO’s joyful production is a surreal collision between the world of the fairies and the House of Lords

The English National Opera’s latest production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most political satire, Iolanthe, is a surreal mix carried off in style. Despite its traumatic year, following proposed Arts Council funding cuts and uncertainty over its long-term future at the London Coliseum, Iolanthe is funny, joyful and beautifully sung. The orchestra sets an exuberant pace while the chorus – the glory of the ENO – has never been better nor looked happier while singing its wings and coronets off.

Written in 1882, WS Gilbert not only revisited some of his most familiar themes – class and politics – but threw in the late Victorian obsession with fairies.

He and Sullivan had already had one go at the hereditary toffs in Pirates of Penzance. In Iolanthe the supernatural and the “real” worlds collide fatally – not least because Fairy Law dictates that any fairy who marries a human faces certain death.

Thus when Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) – half- man, half-fairy (Iolanthe is his mother) is refused permission by the Lord Chancellor (his human father, played with cut-glass diction by John Savournin) to marry the lovely Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne, who is all too human, as well as being the Lord Chancellor’s ward of court) things get complicated.

No prizes for identifying the distracted blonde and tousled head bumbling around the chorus

Briefly, however, in revenge, the Queen of the Fairies (Catherine Wyn-Rogers), a Brünnhilde with wings as well as breastplate and with music to match, declares that Strephon must enter parliament to teach those pesky peers, who challenge his passion for Phyllis, a lesson. Not only will Strephon have the powers to pass any legislation, but members of the “House of Peers” will no longer be able to swan off “during the grouse and salmon season”, or on Fridays. Worse, and the most topical note of all, the hereditary principle will be ditched in favour of competitive examination – by 1880 the curse of a reformed civil service. Act I ends with the peerage in meltdown.

Act II puts it all right of course – not least because the laws of fairyland can be reversed where love is concerned. It is a simple matter, since the fairies and peers are now mad about each other, to change the law (spoiler alert) so that all fairies will die if they do not marry peers. From the bacchanalian scenes in what looks like the Peers’ Guest Room, this is just as well.

It’s a romp from start to finish; part pantomime, part political satire: mechanical ducks, stuffed sheep, pyrotechnics and aerial displays all delight and sometimes – at the most tender and musical moments – distract. A steam train crashes through fairyland in Act I disgorging a day trip of peers. And the audience gets to sing along with the Lord Chancellor. The verbal jokes are risqué and unrepeatable – except the one suggesting a “cultural body” wants the House of Peers to move outside London.

IolantheAnd of course the visual jokes: no prizes for identifying the distracted blonde and tousled head bumbling around the chorus, or his shadow, a small and disconsolate figure in glasses. Nor the blonde female hurling herself at the doors of the House of Peers.

But Iolanthe also raises more profound questions about gender roles, and the fragmentation of class (“bow down ye lower middle classes; ye tradesmen and ye masses”). Above all, it’s clear from the lyrics that Gilbert and Sullivan saw the House of Lords as at its best when doing nothing. Perhaps the recent, gruelling parliamentary session would have changed their views.

But the biggest cheer of a very cheerful night was for “Captain Shaw” the front of house “fireman”, when he told us that we were about to hear ENO “at its home in London: [pause] still its home in London”. Chorus of peers: “Hear hear.” 

Baroness Andrews is a Labour peer

Directed by: Cal McCrystal
Conducted by: Chris Hopkins
Venue: ENO, London Coliseum, WC2, until 25 October

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