International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival

THE 27th INTERNATIONAL GILBERT AND SULLIVAN FESTIVAL

A REVEALING OVERVIEW OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN


THE 27th INTERNATIONAL GILBERT AND SULLIVAN FESTIVAL
Royal Hall, Harrogate
After 2020's lockdown in all theatrical activity, the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival has this year celebrated its 27th staging, kicking off in Buxton and ending triumphantly in Harrogate's glorious Royal Hall (like the Buxton Opera House, another wonderful Frank Matcham creation).
And this is truly an international enterprise, performing groups visiting from the United States, Canada and elsewhere, and audience members making the trip from all parts of the globe. One stalwart presents himself in all manner of garb as he greets us at the door. So the impact on local hospitality commerce is immense.
Around the theatrical performances are talks, late-night cabarets, and the facilities of the Festival Club, all creating an atmosphere of conviviality and dedication to the matter in hand, the relishing yet again of these G & S creations, some well-known and well-loved, others more obscure.
However rare some of these offerings might be, there are always members of the audience who can mouth along every word, quick to leap upon the gags. This was particularly evident in Charles Court Opera's Express G&S, an Agatha Christie-like spoof concerning a heinous crime committed on an overnight train – the destruction of the trolley-girl's precious D'Oyly Carte.
Here there were references and snatches from every Savoy Opera, and didn't the audience love soaking up all the in-jokes! It was brilliantly performed by a versatile company of three, among whom Catrine Kirkman, displaying both dazzling histrionic capabilities and an astonishing range of vocal dexterity, from coloratura soubrette to typically wobbly alto.
Kirkman was but one in an astonishing bevy of singers who appeared in show after show, often in different ones matinee and evening. The veteran Bruce Graham was another standout example, his John Wellington Wells rescuing a Sorcerer which otherwise fulfilled all the stereotypical perceptions of Gilbert and Sullivan, with reedy tenors and enough vibrato wobbling around to make it difficult to spot the intended note.
Graham was also the eponymous Mikado in a brilliant concept which made the context the dying days of an empirical British presence in Japan, making British bureaucracy the butt of all the jokes instead of lampooning all things Japanese.
The irrepressible Simon Butteriss was an engaging virtual ever-present. His Ko-Ko in the Mikado had a wonderfully topical little list, including the Princes Harry and Andrew, plus the woke brigade, and as Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore he was actually able to add an element of poignancy.
As Bunthorne in a rather tired Patience he was bested by the Grosvenor of Matthew Siveter, a promising young performer of great stage presence (he was also a charismatic Pooh-Bah) and versatility, contributing both a duo evening and a one-man show to the late-night cabarets. To Siveter's singing and acting add wonderfully light feet, including a John Cleese walk; he is certainly a name to look out for.
Among the other notable performers were Gaynor Keeble, warm of tone and easy of movement; Matthew Kellett, particularly compelling as Pinafore's Dick Deadeye; Caroline Kennedy as Josephine in Pinafore, generally stunning in altissimo, and Emily Vine, sweet as Patience, determined as the Mikado's Yum-Yum.
Spoken dialogue was sparklingly delivered, though diction (nor when vocalised) was not always crystal-clear. Never mind, the cognoscenti were able to anticipate every word.
Particularly stunning was the use of the rich, full-toned chorus, not cluttering the stage (apart from the messy Sorcerer), but imposingly set behind gauzes, appearing at key moments almost like a Greek chorus. This was a brilliant idea.
The heroic orchestra sounded somewhat wan in The Sorcerer, but under James Hendry they were absolutely sparkling in Mikado, Patience and HMS Pinafore – and how lovely to hear the bassoon coming through so clearly.
This crash course in Gilbert and Sullivan proved highly enlightening for this uninitiate. It gave an overview of the cruelty behind much of this oeuvre: actual goriness; the continual mockery of older women (one wonders what actually was Gilbert's psychological problem); the obsession with class difference; and, hearteningly, the satirising of all the pettifogging bureaucracy characterising the Government.
Sullivan is of course a magpie composer, pinching from Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and others, and even sometimes himself. But don't so many stage composers do the same today?
My overview was an enlightening experience, on the fringe of what had proved to be a joyous reunion of so many G&S devotees.
Christopher Morley

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