Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe

I went to the Carl Rosa Opera Company’s Iolanthe with some trepidation. My experience of Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) really only extended to The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, although my partner is passionate about their work. But I needn’t have worried. Although all too rarely performed, Iolanthe is a charming and still very funny work.

The seventh of the 14 G&S collaborations, its subtitle is The Peer and the Peri, which neatly sums up the plot. It’s a frothy concoction in which the titular Iolanthe has been banished for life from the fairy world for falling in love with a mortal. After 25 years, the fairies plead with their queen to pardon her and on her return, they discover that she has a son, Strephon, who is half human and half fairy (later, his fiancée enquires plaintively ‘Which half?’). He?s an Arcadian shepherd in love with a ward of Chancery, Phyllis. They are foiled in their plan to marry by her guardian, the Lord Chancellor, who wishes to marry her himself, as does most of the House of Lords. Strephon calls on the fairies for help and, outraged by the attitude of the peers, they call down a magical ‘sentence’ on them – Strephon shall not only become an MP (‘A fairy member? How lovely’), but will have the power to pass any bill he proposes, including throwing the peerage open to competitive examination.

As may be imagined, the peers find this intolerable, although they are somewhat mollified by the fact that the fairies have all fallen in love with them. In order to help her son, Iolanthe goes to plead his case to the Lord Chancellor, who turns out to be her husband (he believed her to have died childless). She is forced to reveal her identity to him, further breaking fairy law, and so the Queen has no choice but to sentence her to death. Iolanthe is saved when one of the fairies declares that the Queen will have to kill them all in that case. The Lord Chancellor suggests a small change to the law, and, seeing no reason to remain in the mortal realm if peers are to be recruited from persons of intelligence, the peers agree to join the fairy ranks.

The skewering of rank is still all too relevant today in light of the cash for peerages row, and the audience certainly relished the barbed comments as much as original audiences must have done. And the Fairy Queen’s consideration of marrying a Mr Brown and becoming a Mrs Brown (dressed as she was as Queen Victoria) carried an extra modern frisson.

Peter Mulloy’s design for the production was certainly charming, with an Art Deco inspired fairyland, and indeed, its inhabitants were equally appealing (in another era, they would certainly have attracted stage-door admirers from the ranks they were making fun of). Of the principals, Steven Page’s Lord Chancellor was exemplary, with every delicious syllable clearly audible. Maria Ewing was clearly having a ball as a diva of a Fairy Queen, conjured in equal part from Edith Evans and Anna Wintour. Bruce Graham and Barry Clark brought the Earl of Mountararat and Earl Tolloller to life and Charlotte Page was a sparky Phyllis. Sadly, Sophie-Louise Dann’s Iolanthe was somewhat bland, and, although putting in an appealing performance as Strephon, Karl Daymond’s voice really wasn’t up to standard. Putting them all to shame was a cameo by Donald Maxwell, whose wonderful voice made it all seem effortless.

For all its faults, I enjoyed it immensely, and it’s definitely made me want to experience more G&S. But what a shame it’s only on until February 16 – it really deserves to be on longer.

Iolanthe is at the Gielgud Theatre until February 16, to be followed by The Pirates of Penzance from February 18 to March 1 (0844 482 5130)