Stuart King

Review: IOLANTHE at London Coliseum

Directed by Cal McCrystal with a set and costumes by the late and much lamented Paul Brown, this revival from 2018 is a wonderfully frolicsome flower in ENO’s buttonhole and captures all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s joyful nonsense. With a splash of modern playfulness (and even a pinch of vulgarity secreted amidst the coded messaging and spoofed political appearances), IOLANTHE is a blast of energy, irreverence, and fun, from start to finish.

english national opera iolanthe The Cast of ENO’s Iolanthe 2023 © Craig Fuller

Few traditional productions of the 1882 comic opera could ever match the wicked campery and hilarious buffoonery possessed of this semi-magical tale. Fairies and Peers of the Realm are foisted (and occasionally hoisted) together in a riot of colour, coquettishness and convoluted coiffeurs. The result is a veritable feast for the eyes and delivered with lascivious panache by the enormous cast (and occasionally on-stage crew members) who are supplemented by cows, sheep, a horse, unicorn, dog and even a flamingo!

Iolanthe, a fairy who married a mere mortal and bore him a son, feigned her own death when her mother banished her for the crime against fairy law. Twenty-five years on and her husband is now Lord Chancellor and ward to Phyllis who is hugely popular with members of the House of Lords but who has herself fallen for a twenty-five year old shepherd Strephon who has learned he is half fairy and half mortal! In true G&S fashion, the young lovers find their place together in the world, largely by challenging established rules and overcoming idiocy.

Here, the tongue-in-cheek approach to political mockery results in appearances by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Even Nadine Dorries gets in on the act. Clad in pink with her signature platinum bob, she walks hand-in-hand with the buffoon she has so often championed and as they stroll past the facade of the House of Lords, she stops to hammer her fists on the closed doors, clamouring to be let in. As political satire, it is more than equal to the lampooning of the institutions and social climbing prevalent in Victorian society for which WSGilbert was justifiably renowned. The topical jokes are many and frequent and on the evidence of this reviewer’s visit to the London Coliseum, enormously appreciated by the audience.

Notable highs during the evening: Ruairi Bowen’s lyrical tenor as Earl Tolloller, Clive Mantle’s comic delivery as Captain Shaw, Ellie Laugharne’s energised clog dancing soprano Phyllis, John Savournin as The Lord Chancellor, Keel Watson’s Private Willis and the entire orchestra who delivered in spades under the expert baton of Chris Hopkins.

At London Coliseum until 25 October.

Iolanthe Tickets