Gilbert and Sullivan had a particular knack for choosing pertinent subjects, and exposing their absurdities with wit and style that could be interpreted as either satire or celebration of the fun that can be had. The Aesthetic movement was all the rage in the later part of the nineteenth century and influenced a wealth of glorious poetry, decorative arts and buildings (the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park is perhaps the finest monument to aestheticism). This cult of beauty, advocating beauty as a means to itself without a moral dimension, unsurprisingly spawned a host of imitators who had the mannerisms down pat but lacked the flair of Rossetti, Swinburne, Wilde et al., yet were never at a loss for young ladies willing to lap their ‘talent’ up.
Following on from Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Iolanthe, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, the less frequently performed Patience (the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera to be performed at the Savoy Theatre in 1881) opens with ‘Twenty love-sick maidens’ (well, eight) and dressed in floral-print frocks, matching pastel-coloured cardigans and plimsolls singing about their love for the poet Reginald Bunthorne. Once one’s eyes adjust to the boyish haircuts and extraneous body hair, these ‘damosels’ are neither camp nor butch; ironically, it’s the men playing men who camp it up more. The gender-bending adds another quite head-spinning layer to Gilbert’s convoluted logic about art, love and femininity that is represented by suggestion rather than exaggeration. The falsettos are pleasingly easy on the ear, with crisp diction all round and a lovely touch was having their natural voices amplify the dragoons’ choruses.
While the Ladies, Angela, Saphir, Ella etc., are desperate for Bunthorne’s attention, he is preoccupied with “Eating the milkmaid Patience’s butter with a teaspoon”. The regiment of stomping dragoons in the neighbourhood are of no interest as a military man in a tweedy uniform is so last year. Edward Charles Bernstone flutters between her two admirers as the delightfully guileless ingénue, unaware that it is possible to love anyone who isn’t a relation, and Dominic Brewer’s Bunthorne is the embodiment of affected medievalism, reading his poems in a very actorly voice and enunciating the silent ‘k’s.
No one idol is irreplaceable: the maidens’ affections transfer to Patience’s childhood sweetheart, the wandering troubadour Archibald Grosvenor (Stiofàn O’Doherty) who has been in a “Fifteenth-century Florentine frenzy for 15 years”, clad in sheer white shirt and very tight trousers (much like Mr Darcy before his swim but more effete). O’Doherty’s exceptionally beautiful lyrical baritone voice was my vocal highlight and perfectly suited to the battle of narcissists as he and Bunthorne try to out-preen one other.
Regan ensures that every member of the very pretty cast has their own individuality: Bunthorne’s most devoted groupie of all, the man-hungry frump Lady Jane (Sean Quigley) is vindicated when hand-picked by the fabulously rich Duke of Dunstable (Matthew James Willis). James Lacey brings plenty of warmth to Lady Angela, the most prominent maiden, and Edward Simpson throws himself wholeheartedly into abandoning military precision for languid aesthetic posing as Colonel Calverley.
Kingsley Hall’s set evokes a sense of bucolic tranquillity, with swirls representing peacock feathers, and Steve Miller’s rosy lighting is beautifully accentuated by tea lights. The choreography, by Drew McOnie is witty and resourceful and I particularly enjoyed the rhythmic gymnastics. MD Richard Bates joins in the fun by wearing a chintzy dress and provides an excellent solo accompaniment.
Having once claimed that I could never be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, I think I now have to eat my words. When their works are beautifully sung, engagingly performed, and staged with ingenuity and a bit of irreverence, there are few things more enjoyable. A stunner of a production and a splendid example of ‘Fun for fun’s sake’.
Patience plays at the Union Theatre until March 10. For more information and tickets, visit the website.