The Yeomen of the Guard review

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For many years, Jonathan Miller’s very funny and highly acclaimed production of The Mikado was the only G&S in their repertoire but a few years ago, the Irish director Cal McCrystal put together a delightful production of Iolanthe for them, then followed with an imaginative buy rather patchy version of HMS Pinafore. The latest foray into G&S territory is similarly unconvincing.

Part of the trouble can be blamed on W.S. Gilbert: it is simply not as funny or well-constructed as most of their other works, and the action is rather slow.

When this happens, it is the director’s task to introduce things to keep the audience amused and distract from the dull passages. To some extent, Jo Davies does just that, but rather inconsistently.

At the start, for example, we are treated, during the overture, to a black-and-white filmed news broadcast, firmly placing the action around the late 1950s and early 60s, but apart from some of the costumes, this theme is not followed up and Gilbert’s plot is firmly set as a 19th century view of the 16th century.

It is also a much more sombre plot – or at least a comic plot without a happy ending – than other G&S operettas. It centres on the imprisonment in the Tower of Colonel Fairfax on a charge of spying (in the original I believe it was witchcraft) for which he has been sentenced to death. The sub-plots include a pair of stories of unrequited love.

In their 2021 production of HMS Pinafore, the ENO included Les Dennis in the cast, perhaps hoping that an established TV comic would attract a wide audience, but the purists hoping to see good singing and dancing did not approve.

This time, they seemed to be making the same mistake again with Scottish actor Richard McCabe. At first, he seemed to be trying too hard to be funny, and again his singing and dancing were not up to operatic standards, even though, alone among the main cast, he was using a microphone.

However, after the interval he relaxed and used his experience in Shakespearean jester roles to excellent effect.

Of the other leading roles, the tenor Anthony Gregory gave an excellent performance as the imprisoner Colonel Fairfax, while the bass John Molloy gave an excellent all-round performance as Fairfax’s jailer.

The outstanding performance, however, was that of Australian soprano Alexandra Oomens who was perfectly cast as the girl everyone was in love with.

There were some good ideas in the production, including some splendidly bizarre dance steps by the uniformed Yeomen, and the introduction of a patter song from another G&S opera Ruddigore to liven up the proceedings, but it all needed more to overcome this operetta’s pedestrian plotting and dialogue.

The incorporation of a reference to Brexit in one song was a nice touch, but it needed more such injections of humour and topicality.

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