The trouble with satire is that it can so easily come across as melodrama. Satire is incredibly dependent on nuances in timing and expression, and unfortunately, Queanbeyan Players' production of Iolanthe falls all too often on the melodramatic side of the divide.
Iolanthe, oddly enough, is not really about Iolanthe, but about her son, Strephon, and his love, Phyllis. A fairy, banished 24 years ago for marrying a mortal, Iolanthe is restored to the fairy community, and introduces to them her son, who it turns out is half fairy and half mortal (the lower half being the mortal bit). He is planning to marry Phyllis, a ward under the guardianship of the Lord Chancellor, who expects her to marry a member of the House of Lords. Enough said about the plot; it doesn't get any less absurd.
This may be a historical musical, but it's no museum piece. Now approaching its sesquicentenary, Iolanthe boasts a proud pedigree. The first of Gilbert and Sullivan's musicals to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, it was also the first to be resurrected after its copyright expired. It played in repertory continually for no less than 91 years, and perhaps surprisingly, from its origins in the antipodes, it potentially remains almost as funny and relevant in twenty-first century Australia as it was in nineteeth-century England.
It is disappointing, then, that this production fails to live up to that potential. Right from the beginning, the use of a full stage curtain, and the retention of Sullivan's ridiculously-long overture, drain the audience of energy. These archaic anomalies have no place in any modern theatre; if a 130 year old play is to have life in the present, it can't be presented as a museum artefact, and with a play of this calibre there's no need for such absurdities.
Some redemption comes quickly following the curtain's painfully slow parting in the form of commendable vocals from the principal cast. Elora Ledger as Iolanthe, Elisha Holley as Celia, and Anna Greenwood as Leila do well to fight the depression that comes from staring at a closed curtain. They're soon joined by Gerard Ninnes as Strephon and Madeleine Rowland as Phyllis, whose vocal performances are just as compelling. They're accompanied too by an excellent orchestra with enough energy to do the book justice.
But it seems all the energy in this production went into the music, at the expense of the humour. Comic timing is out of kilter throughout, and there is little comic flair in the choreography or in the telling of the story. Gilbert and Sullivan's musical should be a romp; hilarity is its principal characteristic. Swinging constantly from the ridiculous to the satirical, there is enough scope here to send everyone home with an aching belly, but in this production it just smacks of too much pathos and not enough bathos.
On opening night there was some recovery in the second act. Following another dirge-like curtain opening, Chris McNee set a much better pace as Private Willis, the Coldstream Guard who sings When All Night Long (a particularly prescient ditty), and the action hops along at a better pace with its foot more clearly in the comedy camp.
Perhaps someone could mount an argument that Iolanthe really is a melodrama with a few isolated funny bits, in which case this production could be said to do it justice. For my money, Iolanthe is comedy to its core, and should zip along with the energy of Moulin Rouge. This production doesn't, and I can only hope the generally talented cast find their timing as the run continues.
Gilbert and Sullivan
Venue: Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre
Dates: Jun 8 2012 - Jun 23 2012
Tickets: $40.00 – $35.00