Apr 5 2024 | By More

★★★☆☆   Inventive

Summerhall: Wed 3 – Fri 5 April 2024
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group has created an inventive updating of Gilbert and Sullivan in Biolanthe, running in the intimate Tech Cube0 at Summerhall for three performances only.

This is Iolanthe but not as G&S wrote it. Or not, at least, as Gilbert did. Sullivan’s music is very well represented by a lively band under the baton of MD Falk Meier, who make the most of his gorgeous overture. It does, however catch Gilbert’s meaning perfectly and his plot is all there too, but updated to the contemporary times.

Ewan Robertson and Hannah Whelan. Pic Andrew Morris

The adaptation, by Fraser Grant with new lyrics by Lewis Eggeling and a script by Grant and Rosalyn Harper, should be considered a modified triumph. The basics remain, the particulars are brought right up to date but the plot, doesn’t sustain its initial successes through to its rather cop-out ending.

Most updates to G&S are content with a few contemporary references or maybe a reframing of the set. Not Grant and director Hunter King.

In plot terms, the fairies of the original are now pixies who provide the solution to modern day pollution. Setting up a positively tempestuous climate showdown in the first half. The whole of the second half is somehow set in a television studio.

romantic heart remains

Otherwise the plot’s romantic heart remains. The fairy Biolanthe (Anna Judelson) has been banished from fairyland because she married a mortal, but after 25 years, the other fairies persuade the fairy Queen (Izzie Atkinson) to forgive her.

They are all a bit surprised to learn that Biolanthe has a son, Strephon (Ewan Robertson), who is in love with Phyllis (Hannah Whelan) a ward of Chancery, but is afraid to reveal his fairy origins to her.

Hannah-Rose Laverick, Anna Judelson and Chloe Brandwin. Pic Andrew Morris

Thaddeus Buttrey’s Lord Chancellor won’t allow the marriage, however, as he and all the rest of the Lords are in love with Phyllis themselves. And when Phyllis sees Strephon talking with his mother, who still looks 17, she throws him over in favour of one of the Lords. Any one of the Lords will do… Causing mayhem between fairies and mortals.

The big change is in Eggeling’s lyrics. Beyond the bones of the plot they are a wholescale modernisation. The lively Robertson’s Strephon – still an Arcadian shepherd – and seriously listenable Whelan’s Phyllis – now a pouting influencer – get to reference the likes of Ant and Dec in the depths of their love duet None shall part us, and there are nicely finessed references to Taylor Swift.

blustering demeanour

Emmet Smith gets to call down Churchill, Thatcher and Truss – yes Truss – in Lord George Montararat’s When Britain Ruled the Waves, pitching the Lords perfectly into the blinkered right-wing of current political party politics, for whom the past is always a better land.

Then there is Thaddeus Buttrey’s Chancellor. His hair might not be an unkempt golden haystack, but everything else about his look and blustering demeanour is pure Johnson. Although such comparisons don’t do justice to Buttrey’s superbly delivered When I went to the Bar, and his brilliant patter Nightmare. All, once again, strongly updated.

Thaddeus Buttrey (centre) with Emmett Smith, Mick Zijdel and Jamie Argo. Pic Andrew Morris

The 14 strong company are not all equally at home with Sullivan’s music, but there is not a single member who doesn’t give their all. The litter picker-wielding fairy chorus is best represented, with strong voices and clever characterisation from Amelia Brenan (Celia), Hannah-Rose Laverick (Leila) and Megan Turner (Greta).

Jamie Argo is great value as leader of the Lords, Tolloller, as well as moonlighting in the Fairy Chorus. Mick Zijdel sets Act 2 up well as Willis, now a TV reporter. Lucien Ngai and lyricist Lewis Eggeling put in consistent turns as various lascivious Lords. Chloe Brandwin does a superb job, appearing as part of both opposing choruses.

neatly clever

King’s staging on Azelea Drace’s basic but very workable and upcycled set, is neatly clever. Notable are the bubbles floating down around the fairies every time they appear, and choreographer Alix Burness’ variations on the heart motif when the Lords dance around, declaring their all for Phyllis.

Lighting designer Freya White has a difficult ask with the tight playing area. Her lighting plan keeps it clear but is sometimes a bit intrusive in its literal interpretation of events on stage. Eloise Robertson and Millie Franchi’s costumes are excellent, however. The suitably fey recycled and upcycled fairy costumes (and wings) are a particular triumph.

A rich and consistently hilarious updating of Gilbert and Sullivan, performed with brio. If it doesn’t quite carry through on its promise, Biolanthe provides a great deal of fun and all the necessary tongue-twisting, politician-mocking, and love-lorn entertainment you would expect.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes.
Summerhall, Tec Cube 0, 1 Summerhall EH9 1PL.
Wed 3 – Fri 5 Apr 2024
Evenings: 7.30pm
Tickets and details:Book here.

Jamie Argo (centre) with Thaddeus Buttrey, Lucien Ngai, Mick Zijdel, Lewis Eggeling, Chloe Brandwin and Emmett Smith. Pic Andrew Morris


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