When I was first told that this production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe would be made up of an all- male cast, I was sceptical. To me it felt like a step back from the current call to consider better representation when it comes to performers. My worries were put to rest at the beginning of the first song, ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither’, as the stage is gracefully descends upon by fairies. These actors’ ability to completely inhabit these larger than life characters really is something to behold throughout this spectacle of astounding voices, saucy innuendo and touching tenderness.
At the beginning of the play, Iolanthe (Christopher Finn), a fairy, has not been seen for 25 years due to her banishment from Fairyland for falling in love with a mortal, whom she has also has her son Strephon (Richard Carson) with. She has now returned and it is revealed that her son wishes to marry his love Phyllis (Joe Henry), however the Lord Chancellor (Alastair Hill) will not grant it- cue the farce.
Directed by Sasha Regan, this truly is an ensemble piece, the set-up being that the actors have stumbled across this space (Richmond Theatre), and are making the show as they go along, choosing random bits of material to create their costume; the fairies’ wings attached to their arms, made of things such as bunting, fringe trim and cloth. Under the supervision of Kingsley Hall, the set along with the costume has the same makeshift but creative feel, an old wardrobe being used as an entrance and exit, and a pair of benches and a ladder makes a chancellor’s court. The beauty of movement each actor possesses is nothing short of incredible, with choreographer Mark Smith creating not only stunning tableaus, but also thigh- slapping hilarity- the lightness of the fairies matches their pastel coloured costumes, whilst the loud and heavy coats and hats worn by the mortals also pairs with their energies.
With both male and female parts played by men, it falls to those playing women to really show off their range, so much so that if you close your eyes, you would not be able to tell the difference. The physicality and occasional tenderness of Finn and Henry cause you to forget that they are not really women, which makes this production one of meticulous silliness whilst never sacrificing the talent of any performer, harking back to that old adage- comedy is a serious business.
Not one moment of possible humour goes unmissed, and the vocal acrobatics will leave you amazed, all in all, something quite different and very entertaining.
Iolanthe played at the Richmond Theatre until 19 May 2018
Photo: Harriet Buckingham