The Yeoman of the Guard by Gilbert & Sullivan @ The London Coliseum. Reviewed by John O’Brien.
This is a really delightful show. It’s very clever, witty and entertaining. “The Yeoman of the Guard” is a comic opera, a love story and a satire on English institutions such as The Tower of London and as the title indicates the Yeomen of the Guard. Female directer, Jo Davies has had the inspired idea to set this version in 1953 at the time of the Coronation of Elizabeth II. This gives her scope to introduce such 1950s icons as The Teddy Boys, the first BBC television broadcast, jitterbugging and the twist. The acting all round is top notch, the singing crisp and clear, the musical phrasing always spot on, the choreography inspired, the sets wonderfully atmospheric and the costumes vividly evocative. If you have preconceptions that Gilbert & Sullivan is fuddy duddy or old hat please do put them to one side and go and see this production. You will have a fantastic evening and rest assured you will be in safe hands. It’s a superb production which delivers on every front.
In many ways it was inevitable that Gilbert & Sullivan would set one of their comic operas in the Tower of London. For what building and what other uniform can evoke so vividly our image of England than the Tower and the Beefeaters? By doing so they have been able to draw on a thousand years of history, pageantry, ritual, pomp and circumstance. Perfect material for a comic send up of all things English. There is a delicious feedback loop going on here. Gilbert & Sullivan are as much creating England as they are reflecting it. So much so that someone remarked that the Coronation of 1953 was like a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Such is the magic of a great work of art.
This production weaves together two strands – the low and the high – to create a uniquely English form of comic opera. At once melodramatic and Wagnerian. We can hear that in the music as it modulates from catchy tunes to romantic longing. But especially in the acting, which ranges from Jack Point – a roving street entertainer to Dame Carruthers the Deputy Governor of the Tower. The plot cleverly brings the low and high characters together inside the Tower thus creating a metaphor of England. The Tower of London contains all of England as it were. This works because of course the Tower is a fortress, a prison, an arsenal and safe deposit box for the nation’s jewels. So everyone from traitors awaiting execution to the high and mighty have reason to be inside the Tower.
Much of the comedy in “The Yeomen of the Guard” comes from this rich social mix. Jack Point (Richard McCabe) and his fellow street entertainer Elsie Maynard (Alexandra Oomens) make their way from busking on Tower Green into the Tower. Thus bringing the life of the Cockneys into the opera. Dame Carruthers (Susan Buckley) and Sergeant Maryll (Neal Davies) stand for tradition and authority. The anarchy of the street undermines the power structure of the Tower by the topsy turvey wonder of love. In a complicated tangle of love triangles, love overcomes power to free the hero and join the poor girl with her lover. How that happens is the magic of the show and it would be irresponsible of me to reveal that in a review. Suffice to say it’s done with the usual Gilbertain panache and exuberance.
The dialogue and the libretto are both outstanding. The dialogue sparkles. The libretto contains two memorable highlights. The hero Colonel Fairfax (Anthony Gregory) an hour before his execution asks:-
Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That Death, when ever he call,
Must call too soon.
And the most haunting song in the opera which has passed into the language “I have a song to sing, O!”
Misery me, lackadaydee!
He sipped no sup , and he craved no crumb
As he sighed for the love of a lady.
That song is sung twice. First as a joyous expression of young love, but secondly as a lament. The same words but two very different emotions. It’s worth the ticket price just to hear this.
Anthony Ward has produced a stunning set and costumes which play off the red of the beefeaters uniform with the black of the interiors of the Tower. Kay Shepherds delightful choreography has some exquisite comic touches and camp high jinks. involving tap dancing Coldstream Guards and skirt lifting Yeomen. Musically you couldn’t be in safer hands. Chris Hopkins has the baton fresh from his brilliant HMS Pinafore in 2021.