Sam Baumal enters the bizarrely entertaining world of Durham Opera Ensemble’s Iolanthe.
So often at the moment, any notion of political discussion is accompanied by a deep sense of dread and hopelessness. When greeted by a Musical Director in fairy wings, I knew that Durham Opera Ensemble’s Iolanthe would be ever so slightly different. This wonderfully irreverent story sees a group of fairies face off with none other than the House of Peers and hilariously shies away from none of that inherent madness.
Director Hugo Millard has done a huge amount here, effectively bringing out as much humour as possible from what could have been a fairly outdated libretto. Comedy is sprinkled wonderfully throughout with the use of clever blocking and some inspired changes to the plot that I will absolutely not be spoiling in this review. Rory McNeilage shines in this regard as the buffoonish Lord Chancellor from his opening number, where sycophantic Earls hang on his every word, to his extremely impressive patter song where he is given an unbelievable number of lyrics which he rattles through with clarity and precision (although I must admit I was unprepared for seeing him perform this number in his underwear).
The Co-Musical Directors Nathan Smith and Tom Duggan have also done a wonderful job here. The band is quite brilliant, knowing when they should blow the audiences faces off, like in ‘March of the Peers’, and when they need to hold back and let the cast (unfortunately without microphones) take centre stage. The vocal blend among the chorus was also lovely, particularly with the group of fairies, whose joyous vocals really helped to set the tone in the opening of the show. This tone was also effectively established through the work of Choreographer Ava Cohen, who helped the cast capture their characters very effectively. The tiny steps employed by the fairies during their dance numbers contrasting with the great strides of the Earls was really nice to see and created a brilliant distinction between the two groups. This was also highlighted by some very strong costume design throughout.
Max Halcox and Alex Akhurst gave wonderful performances as the Earls Mountararat and Tolloller. Their palpable chemistry was hilarious and their vocals, in particular Max’s bright tenor voice, were spot on. An absolute highlight of the show was their duet, where their Lordly friendship gives way to sexual tension leading eventually to…… well, I won’t spoil it for you. But it was brilliant. Poppy Metherell as the eponymous Iolanthe was equally great although notably absent for most of the proceedings. When she did finally arrive, however, her solo number was full of emotion and delivered a truly touching moment for the audience. Other very strong performances came from Kate Sweet as Queen of the Fairies, whose clarity and poise were always exceptional, Adam Brown as Strephon and Hannah Thomson as Phyllis. The relationship between the latter two was lovely to see develop and they both delivered fine vocal performances with Brown creating a very relatable protagonist and Thomson constantly wowing the audience with her effortless vibrato. Mention must also go to Leo Thomson as Private Willis who was instantly likeable and provided a lot of laughs whenever he was on stage.
The only drawbacks for me were realistically the lack of tech and set. I have heard that there were various technical struggles with the venue, but it was slightly jarring looking at the portraits hanging at the back of the stage that were very much out of place. I think the production would have benefited from a little shrubbery or decorative hangings to help set the scene for the land of the fairies but saying this, the audience were very quickly absorbed in the action anyway. The venue at times posed a problem for the choreography as well with certain big group numbers feeling a bit squished and crowded. Luckily the lack of microphones was well handled by the skilful band and as such caused no problems with being able to hear the cast.
Overall, Iolanthe was an extremely enjoyable and light-hearted piece of theatre with fabulous performances throughout, a wonderful band and one of the best senses of humour that I have seen in a while. I highly recommend this show despite its venue limitations and implore you to catch it before the run finishes!
Iolanthe will be playing in Leech Hall at 3pm and 7:30pm on Sunday 23rd June.