Gilbert & Sullivan... the greatest show takes to the road

A timeless joy... The Pirates of Penzance A timeless joy... The Pirates of Penzance

Monday, June 2, 2014
10:43 AM

Company brings three productions to The Orchard on first-ever tour

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Perhaps with a name like Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, there was always going to be an element of the absurd, but the legacy of WS Gilbert to the world of comic theatre has been monumental.

He was, of course, half of Gilbert and Sullivan, one of the greatest musical collaborations this country has ever produced. Their prominence, if not their star, has of course waned since their Victorian-era pomp, but many thousands across the world are still captivated by this most English of phenomena.

Gilbert was the librettist and Arthur Sullivan the composer behind 14 works that melded wonderful musical theatre with a glorious, sometimes riotous, romp of comical farce.

Happily, many more of us will this year have the opportunity to enjoy their work as the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, the group that has made the festival such a success, takes to the road for the first time. There is just one venue selected in southern England: The Orchard Theatre in Dartford.

The decision to venture forth across the highways and byways coincides with the relocation of the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival from Buxton Opera House to

Harrogate’s 1,000-seat Royal Hall. Dramatic stuff, in every sense.

The festival, which this year celebrates its 21st anniversary, has been an undoubted success at Buxton, where up to 45,000 visitors would travel for the event every year, so why the change?

Bernard Lockett, a trustee of the festival who lives in Folkestone, said: “Buxton was selected as the base because it is so central. It’s dead in the centre of England – but there was a need for a slightly larger theatre, hence the move to Harrogate, which is, of course, pretty central itself.

“Also, there is a greater range of accommodation in Harrogate.”

Splendid, and surely worthy of a jaunt in itself, but in the meantime, and of more immediate relevance to lovers of music in Kent, what prompted the bold move by the company to go on tour, when its ambition thus far had not extended beyond three productions solely for the festival?

“There were many requests to go on tour for the first time ever,” said Lockett. “We were of course aware of the quality of the company and the critical acclaim it received from audiences in Buxton. Now that can be spread across the country.

“It is the first time since 1982 that a company has toured three productions together. We will be taking The Mikado, Iolanthe and The Pirates Of Penzance – John Savournin is directing Pirates and Simon Butteriss the other two.”

Lockett is perhaps the wrong man to ask, but how does he explain the enduring wonderment of G&S? “It’s interesting,” he said. “I have a theory that Gilbert and Sullivan were the forerunners to today’s

musical theatre, things like Les Mis and Phantom Of The Opera.

“The wonderful thing about their work is the satire and social comment. Iolanthe tackles the House of Commons in a manner that is still relevant today – I think that aspect of what they did has added to their popularity, not just in this country but in places like Australia and South Africa as well.

“The Mikado, for example, was never a story about Japan but about the failings of the British government – it was just disguised very well.”

The appeal is indeed universal.

“Sydney Opera House has a Gilbert and Sullivan festival every year, while there are performances way out of the orbit in places like Estonia, Hungary and Lithuania.”

The obvious question is how much is lost in translation.

“It is usually done in English, but the programmes have glossaries that tell the audience what it is all about, although about two years ago

a company from Barcelona put on Ruddigore at Buxton and cut out a lot of the dialogue and songs – it was fascinating and worked very well.”

The scale of the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company production, meanwhile, is such that the number of venues where it can be presented in all its glory will always be limited.

“I don’t think that many places could take this sort of production,” said Lockett. “It’s quite a large thing, with a 28-strong orchestra and a chorus of a similar size.”

With the company having honed its work so specifically to the surrounds of the Buxton Opera House, what can the audience at The Orchard – a markedly different venue – expect?

“It will be performed just as it would be in Buxton or Harrogate – we don’t change anything about Gilbert’s words or Sullivan’s music,” said Lockett.

“In Pirates, for example, there are several points in the show where you could have enhanced choreography, but the stages weren’t big when these pieces were written – indeed some were played by gaslight – and we have elected not to upgrade production in a manner that would be at odds with its original form.”

It is no exaggeration to say that many people are in love with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. Bernard Lockett is very clearly one of those people.

“Sullivan was an absolute master of tune,” he said. “I think they were the greatest pairing of a writer and a composer in the history of musical theatre.”

■ The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company will be at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, from Wednesday to Saturday, June 18-21. On the Wednesday it will present The Mikado, on Thursday Iolanthe and on Friday and Saturday The Pirates Of Penzance.

For times of performances and ticket details, phone 01322 220000 or visit www.orchardtheatre.co.uk.

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