Monday, 26 March 2012

BUSOM Presents Iolanthe (Theatre In The Mill, University of Bradford, Thursday 22nd March 2012)

In staging ‘Iolanthe’, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 musical about – and I’m not making this up – a group of immortal fairies who remove the banishment from fairy Iolanthe to find she has a son who is half immortal fairy, half mortal man, who falls in love with politician darling Phyllis but has competition from the members of the House of Lords for her affections, BUSOM set themselves a challenge. ‘Iolanthe’ is not a particularly famous play in popular culture with none of its songs really famous enough to stand out there. Whereas previous musicals performed by BUSOM – such as Calamity Jane and the Pirates of Penzance – have been well known and containing songs that have bled out of the musical and into general listening and allow some hook even if you’re not familiar with the musical itself, ‘Iolanthe’ is a strange beast which feels like you’re starting from scratch.

So, with an open mind and no preconceptions of the play I headed to the Theatre In The Mill to catch this production and what immediately struck me was the increase in professionalism of the production. Though the set – initially consisting of a painted backdrop, a small pond (complete with rubber deck), and a wooden structure which would be explained later – was on par with previous productions, the sound of the cast was better through the use of microphones and the lighting cues much more ambitious and accurate than I’d experienced previously. In fact, through the production, there would be a general feeling of a bigger budget, or wiser spending, from the costumes to the props, in particular with the former with the fairy costumes, guardsman outfit and parliamentary robes being particularly well done.

Though a few feedback issues affected the start of the production the opening chorus of fairies was a powerful introduction and a great collaboration by the fairy side of the cast. In a production with fewer opportunities to shine as an individual due to the ensemble nature of the cast, Lindsey Niven was strong as the Fairy Queen and her opening song worked well. Poppy Brooks, playing the title character, was also on top form but, considering she is the title character, didn’t appear in the production as much as expected and the promised flying sections for her character in the production didn’t materialise unfortunately, but this didn’t detract from her strong performance both vocally and in delivery of the lines.

Musically the production was backed by a quartet of keyboard, viola, trumpet and clarinet, and thanks to the extra microphone help mostly didn’t overpower the vocalists which has been a consistent issue in previous productions. The music was mostly fine but at times didn’t quite match the key of the singers, who themselves sounded fine but the music was a little off, in particular the viola in its louder moments.

As the production continued the ever enjoyable Stuart Sellens came on as Iolanthe’s half-fairy son, dressed appropriately for the role looking like he’d stepped off an advert for farming today, and once more proved he is one of the most bankable members of the team, in this case able to both play the character with pizzazz and also perform some ditties on a small flute. His arrival on stage saw the musical begin to flick between political satire with some lines twisted as nods to the current state of affairs, in particular to the coalition party, and a Carry On film with many tongue-in-cheek double-entendres including the immortal lines of ‘a fairy member’ and ‘Dip your rods in the pond’ and more suggestive nods to human legs than I can count. Either that or I have a dirty mind.

Playing against Stuart was Zoe Howe as Phyllis who initially was a little quieter in her singing but soon grew into the role and they played well as a duet, with some nice chemistry between them, emphasised by some nifty lighting effects and good music, and of course regular kissing. Stuart and Zoe’s song ‘None Shall Part Us’ was a particular highlight at this point in the musical and the pieces grew stronger as the act continued, with some interesting uses of plates as drums and a well-composed balance between two different sides singing different lines. The ‘Earl of Mountararat’ once more stood out as a great comedic actress, thanks also in part to a large comedy moustache as one of the women-cum-men in parts with more cross dressing than a pantomime, and Jon Carter as the PA to the Chancellor also enjoyed some light-hearted funny moments in the background and brought some cheer throughout the production. Or at least I think it was Jon under the most make-up I’ve ever seen applied to one person.

The Lord Chancellor, played by Simon Wilkins, was initially quiet in his role but soon gathered pace, delivering his songs and lines strongly and the musical numbers continued to reflect the more ensemble nature of this piece.

The two earls enjoyed a great double act through the play and were great in their performances but were let down once or twice by the music. Zoe Howe as Phyllis also enjoyed some great solo numbers.

Simon’s performance of stand-out number ‘I Said To Myself Said I’ was excellent as the act continued though the low level humming in the theatre from the mics, thankfully solved by the start of act two, was a little off-putting.

Continuing on there were more strong musical performances, matching the further double-entendres of the musical (never have I heard the words ‘Give Him One’ so many times); comedic turns from Jon, and Stuart growing in character with a great performance of Strephon’s rogue song, Stuart suffering a rose malfunction on his jacket but continuing on regardless.

I did find the ending of act one to drag a little as it reached the hour mark with the last collection of songs seemingly outstaying their welcome, more of an issue with the production than BUSOM’s adaptation of it, and feel the act could have been concluded much quicker with more false endings than the Lord of the Rings.

After some quick refreshment in the interval and a change of backdrop in the theatre, the second act began with Bill Harding donning an impressive guardsman outfit as the wooden tower became a sentry box. Not the only great bit of costume – the parliamentary side of the cast were now dressed in an impressive array of suits, looking much more uniform than the cricketing costumes of the first half which were a little bit hit-and-miss, with Strephon now in parliament. Adapting the lines to include a modern reference to Pickfords was inspired and the character pieces by the main earl, with a great song by her, Anna Garlick and Jon were stand outs. I was only pulled away from the scene by deciding whether to watch the musical or see if I could out-stare Bill as the guardsman who had to stand still for a while to stay in role.

As the act continued many of the cast showed off their talents. Lyndsey and Poppy continued to shine as the Fairy Queen and Iolanthe, Poppy in particular in great voice on the night, alongside Simon as the Chancellor – now in night attire - and Zoe as Phyllis.

Overall I was glad to see Iolanthe performed by BUSOM. If I’m being honest I didn’t particularly enjoy Iolanthe as a musical. I felt a lot of the numbers weren’t particularly exciting and the plot of the production a little samey and straight forward, with the ending of the first act dragging on too long.

However, the cast of BUSOM were impressive, in particular Lyndsey Niven, Poppy Brooks, Stuart Sellens, Zoe Howe and Simon Wilkins, plus some background character support from Anna Garlick and Jon Carter in particular, though there wasn’t as much chance for individuals to shine in this ensemble-led production.

The sets are props were good but it was the better, more professional lighting effects and costume that stood out for me that elevated the production that little higher.

A great performance of an OK musical, I can’t fault the dedication of the team behind it but wasn’t so keen on their choice of production. It’s definitely worth seeing though, and a very enjoyable two-and-a-bit hours for just a fiver thanks to some strong acting, comedic performances and more professional outlook on the composition. (7/10)

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