March remains a bad month for the Jolly Lion getting to see productions at the wrong end of their run. Another last night this weekend, with ‘Patience’ from the Exeter University Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
The production ran from Tuesday 6 to Saturday 10 March 2012 and included a matinee performance, staged at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, under the direction of Bernadette Ellerby, with choreography by Sheena Drainer and musical direction by Charlie Hughes.
And so, confession time… in thirty years, this is my first taste of Gilbert and Sullivan. I came to it with no idea what to expect and wonder how I’ve never come close to it before. Sure enough, there was a Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Aberystwyth during my student days, and I’ve worked the bar for a Torquay run of ‘Iolanthe’, but this was brand new to me. How exciting.
From the moment the curtain went up there was laughter and the audience did not let up, to the extent that if there were song lyrics going astray, it wasn’t the lack of clarity from the performers but the laughter in the audience that stopped you following precisely what was being said.
The story of Patience the milkmaid and her experiences of love was straightforward enough, but nothing could prepare me for three renditions of ‘Twenty love-sick maidens we’ where I hope it was part of the joke that there were never actually quite twenty of them. With Bethany Lyne as Lady Angela, Tess Dowdeswell as Lady Saphir and Rosie Archer as Lady Ella heading up the group of maidens, they led the way through a range of songs that had some of the funniest facial expressions I’ve seen on stage.
The movement of both male and female chorus were such that I couldn’t help but wonder how they had the discipline in rehearsal to bring it to this standard, no doubt they are all trying not to look at each other through fear somebody will laugh. There’s something comforting that even at the end of a run, they still look like they’re having fun.
Jonathan Wood as Bunthorne had a great line in deadpan humour that seemed delightfully unaware against Andrew Henley as Grosvenor, who was so self-aware that there was one double take to the audience that watched laugh build on laugh as both men played the crowd in different ways.
For the ladies, there was Rebekah Brown in the title role who mixed a beautiful vocal in song against a wonderful country bumpkin speaking voice to deliver a strong central performance. Alice Massey as Lady Jane was given some of the best material thanks to ‘Sad is that woman’s lot’ being accompanied by her cello with great humour, then later with ‘So go to him and say to him’.
My favourite song of the night was ‘It’s clear that mediaeval art’ with Harry Boyd, Rowan Brearley and Ishan Pankhania as Duke, Major and Colonel. Through the course of this one scene these three chaps pulled off a range of amusing positions with only a quill, a flower and each other for support, as the soldiers became poets to the best of their ability.
I’m also now feeling slightly spoiled by the live music at these productions, with a splendid orchestra leading the way here. I understand I’ve been listening to the trumpet of Tim Spicer across consecutive Saturdays but in very contrasting shows – and a scamper through the programme reveals the Gilbert and Sullivan lovers are from a mixture of disciplines across the University, what a wealth of talent on display.
So oddly, as a review, I hope this will speak loudest to those who’ve never tasted Gilbert and Sullivan before. All I can say is go, because I now know what I’ve been missing – some of the funniest characters, songs and scenarios I’ve seen created on stage. Whilst I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to find them, I’m glad this was my first experience as this society sold it tremendously.
Last review from the Northcott Theatre: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
For more information visit: Exeter University Gilbert & Sullivan Society