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Yeoman of the Guard

Bath Gilbert and Sullivan Society
(Mission Theatre, Tuesday November 7th)

Many of you may know the scenes, songs and score of this acclaimed Gilbert and Sullivan operetta very well. One man sitting near me even exclaimed that “a lot of the audience probably know every word”. I, however, did not, having little more than a scant knowledge of the famous duo’s work and knowing far less about Yeoman of the Guard in particular. Luckily, little prior knowledge was needed in order to find great pleasure in this tale of romance, deception and intrigue, presented with real passion by the Bath Gilbert and Sullivan Society at the Mission Theatre.

The opera, given a new twist in this version with a World War 2 setting, throws us immediately into the innermost parts of the Tower of London, just an hour before the execution of the wrongfully convicted Colonel Fairfax. What follows are an increasingly complex set of plans and schemes to release him, leading to catastrophe, tragedy and heaps of heart-wrenching romance. In fact, many of the characters seem more preoccupied with the wooing of their chosen loved one than the war which wages on above and around them. Well, it is opera after all…

The songs are of course fantastic, made even better by a strong cast of performers. Jessica Dalton’s voice particularly shines in her role as the coquettish Elsie, yet she is just one of many in a skilful cast of actors. Tom Dalton mixes chivalry and sauciness perfectly as the gallant Fairfax. Lucas Porter finds humour, farce and tragedy in equal measure with his inventive take on the suffering jester, Jack Point. Phoebe Meryll too finds a strong range as the love-struck Sheila. As a whole, the cast did take some time to firmly find their feet, with many of the stand-out moments of hilarity and emotion falling in the second half.

 

However, it was clear to see the great joy and passion that each player had for the great duo’s works, and this joy was readily absorbed and reproduced by the attentive audience this evening.

The attention to detail in reflecting the wartime setting was exemplary. Brilliant costume design and precise, effective staging help to really sell a solid representation of the World War 2 era. The addition of appropriate lighting and sound effects add further depth, with the air raid warnings that begin and end the first half adding a particularly immersive edge. This attention to detail extended to all of the blocking and staging, and director Scott Rogers must receive particular credit for enacting a strong, precise vision for the production. The work of musical director Kerry Bishop shined through as well, with complex arrangements and subtle variations appearing in every one of the opera’s arias, duets and choruses.

The piece was not perfect; it had its fluffs and pitfalls. There were moments of acting that felt clunky and over-performed, leading to certain line deliveries considerably missing the mark. While the ensemble as a whole sang with vigour and gusto, the large gap between the strongest and weakest singers was at times distracting, and the odd missed step in the choreography only added to this distraction. Yet these moments were brief, and detracted very little in the grand scheme to what was a firmly entertaining, well-crafted and skilfully executed piece of theatre. And with a dark twist at the very end that hit me particularly hard, I am actually glad that I knew so little going in.

 

Review by Jonny Pert