Chichester: G&S as it should be done!

Martin Handley believes there's been an awful tendency to allow Gilbert & Sullivan to ossify.

Iolanthe ladies back stage
Iolanthe ladies back stage

And that’s when you lose sense of their brilliance – a brilliance he is aiming to put centre-stage when Tarantara Productions offers Iolanthe in Concert at Chichester Festival Theatre on Saturday, January 21 at 2.30 and 7.30pm.

A team of soloists and chorus and a full on-stage orchestra of 26, conducted by Martin, will offer an operetta viewed by many as G&S’s most perfect collaboration, with hummable favourites including Loudly Let the Trumpet Bray, When All Night Long A Chap Remains and Nightmare Song.

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“With Carl Rosa stopping touring, there was a gap, and there were several of us, who were Carl Rosa mainstays, who wanted to continue. When the CFT re-opened after the great revamp, we were asked to do an acoustic-test concert, and we did a G&S gala which I MC’d and MD’d. That went down very well, and as a result we were asked to do something proper, and we just felt that we wanted to get back to the essence of G&S without the camping around which has become the norm. There has been a problem with G&S.”

There has been a tendency effectively to put G&S in aspic: “And it means that the whole thing has ossified, and there is still an element of that now. Some amateur productions can feel like they are stuck in mud.

“But we wanted to get back to the incredible essence. Gilbert’s text and words are just brilliantly funny. The American musical writers would have said that Gilbert & Sullivan were the ones that began it all. You think of Ira Gershwin and his crazy rhymes, and he was very much in the Gilbertian tradition. Gilbert & Sullivan had a fantastic satirical bite to them, and none more so than Iolanthe which is all about the British parliamentary system – and not a lot has changed.”

But the sense of innovation has been lost by some companies: “Gilbert would have been horrified. He was really a most innovative man of the theatre. He would have hated to see the productions in aspic.”

Tarantara Productions are aiming to stage full productions, though they are not there yet: “We will do! But this is a semi-staged production. People might think ‘Oh! I don’t want to see a semi-staged production!’ but people have loved it. There are costuming elements, and people are not just standing still and singing. People are thoroughly immersed in it all.

“We put the orchestra on stage which is a big element of the production, and we have Sullivan’s preferred size of orchestra.” Added to the mix will be the enthusiasm of the performers. As Martin says, they are not hardened old G&S aficionados: “They are fine singers, young singers. Our object is to produce the best Gilbert & Sullivan that we can possibly produce, and if we do that, people will see G&S for what it is, incredibly funny, incredibly fine and incredibly moving. It is really funny but also really moving…”

Iolanthe is the ‘fairy opera’ which lampoons the House of Lords as a bastion of ineffective and privileged dim-wits who find themselves at war with the fairies – who send Strephon, a half-mortal, half-fairy to Parliament with the power to pass any bill he pleases. Meanwhile, almost all the peers are in love with the Lord Chancellor’s beautiful ward Phyllis, who wants to marry Strephon: until she sees him embracing another young woman…

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