tue 21/05/2024

Princess Ida, Finborough Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Princess Ida, Finborough Theatre

Princess Ida, Finborough Theatre

Tweaked plot and lyrics muddy the waters of Gilbert and Sullivan's tricky sexist satire

Hockeysticks to the invader: helmeted Ida (Bridget Costello) and her gels defy the foeBoth images by Scott Rylander

All Savoyards, whether conservative or liberal towards productions, have been grievously practised upon. They told us to expect the first professional London grappling with Gilbert and Sullivan’s eighth and, subject-wise, most problematic operetta in 20 years (23, if the reference is to Ken Russell’s unmitigated mess, one of English National Opera’s biggest disasters). Yet this is not Princess Ida as the pair would recognize it.

In what turns out to be director Phil Wilmott’s “performing version”, the dramatis personae is essentially reduced by at least six characters of note, numbers are reallocated to the most unlikely singers, one of Sullivan’s three best quartets split into a solo and a duet, the components of a fine through-composed finale scattered about, and, worst of all, the plot of the original outer acts rewritten, with attendant pastiche Gilbertian dialogue.

“A woman’s college? Maddest folly going!” exclaims puny scoffer Cyril, and were the writer not W S Gilbert, one would hesitate to attach the character's views to his creator. But there we have it: the nub of the piece is a satire on women’s education, and there’s not much anyone can do to soften it.

That said, the original does offer some room for ambiguity: Ida has set up her establishment with the highest of aims, and Sullivan gives her some of his loftiest music. I rather hoped to see a production in which the men are medieval lunks, the women enlightened 20th-century tutors and undergraduates. This is not it. Take away the spirit of enterprise, have Ida walled up among the gels by lustful guardian and Lord Protector (not King) Gama (Simon Butteriss pictured below) – more Iolanthe Lord Chancellor than crabby old regent – and a new muddle ensues.

Simon Butteriss as Lord Gama in Princess IdaSo would it work for, say, anyone who didn’t know anything about the original? Well, the pace is lively enough, but the execution of movement and dialogue often lacks focus or conviction; there was all too little laughter in the audience last night, and I’m sure that’s not Gilbert’s fault when the dialogue gags happen to be his (in iambic pentameters throughout, no less). The girls are mostly better than the lads. Though no lyric-dramatic pillar of assurance, Bridget Costello’s Ida is genuinely sweet in melting mood. Her duet with Zac Wancke’s Hilarion –  also fetching, but a crooner rather than the tenor which Sullivan’s writing really demands – almost convinced me that the snippeting up of “The world is but a broken toy” could be justified.

Not much else can, to be honest – certainly not the appropriation of Lady Psyche’s song about Darwinian man by Butteriss’s Gama. The striptease to what should be Arac’s Handelian pastiche “This helmet, I suppose”, like most of what he has to do, just isn’t funny. I got the sense that this accomplished performer believed in the new character almost as little as I did. Let Gama be a misanthrope pure and simple with two numbers in the outer acts; that’s enough.

What’s to praise? Richard Baker and Nick Barstow work their socks off on two rather tinny-sounding electric pianos, while Maira Vazeou’s set designs make the best use of the space, with Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen dominating a not especially masculine environment, and Alma-Tadema’s Ask Me No More suggested in the women’s grounds. There's some not bad business with a callipygous classical male torso, too.

But the Grecian garb and chaplets only get further in the way of new lyrics about the right to vote (applied to a number usually axed, "Come, mighty Must"). I did smile at the end, where Sapphism takes over the “college” and two chaps are joined in holy matrimony. But the simple fact remains: if you don’t trust the material, leave it alone. The Union Theatre’s all-male Iolanthe and Charles Court Opera’s fizzing recent Ruddigore set the bar for having novel fun with G&S while fundamentally respecting its workability. This attempt comes nowhere close.

The Grecian garb and chaplets only get further in the way of new lyrics about the right to vote


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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It's such a shame to hear about productions like this. I saw another production of Princess Ida at Greenwich Theatre last night which I quite enjoyed. I may well go again on Saturday.

Wish I'd heard about that one. Doesn't seem to have much publicity, but I quite like the blurb:

'The medieval musical that makes Game of Thrones look like tiddlywinks!

'In an age of chivalry and chauvinism, one woman strikes a blow for sex equality – and reneges on her arranged marriage – by establishing an all-female university. '

We're so sad to hear you didn't enjoy the show as much as so many of the other critics but we do hope you had fun demonstrating your in depth knowledge of G&S in your review. ★★★★ The Sunday Express ★★★★ The Upcoming ★★★★ WhatsOnStage ★★★★ Remote Goat ★★★★ Musical Theatre Review ★★★★ Plays To See

I feel so lucky to of had the great privilege of attending G&S Princess Ida at the small Finborough Pub Theatre last evening which I can only rate as TOP CLASS. I wished to comment in regard to this poor critique provided by this undoubtedly knowledgeable reviewer.. I fail to accept the reviewers recollections of this production... I found my evening so wonderful, full of such glorious singing, great wit and humour, the audience I spoke to were equally happy and delighted... as a G&S fan I've attended other Princess Ida performances in the past., most recently The Centenary Companies performance of Princess Ida at Greenwich Theatre some two weeks previous, yet thought this Finborough performance rated as one of the nicest.... This is Fringe Theatre after all... A room above a pub!,,, No matter Professional or Armature, performances are limited by circumstances... Therefore should one choose to pay upwards of £200 for a front row seat at a top class high brow Opera House, for that price one would expect a lot. ..then were it below par, by all means run it down!. .. Yet for a small price at the Finborough, I certainly received FAR more than I paid for, with top class entertainment done by top class performers. .... My evening for the mere ticket price of £16, allowed me to be seated in the Front Row, experience a splendid first rate G&S musical show, with a great cast who made brilliant use of such a limited space, that's besides the delight of witnessing the utter mastery of Mr Butteriss in action, his art and craftsmanship of Messrs Gilbert & Sullivan work is truly awesome. How then, when one also has access to a clean well kept bar, which offers unique real cast ales, as well as being staffed by efficient welcoming barstaff .. coupled with scrupulously clean toilet facilities!...... Would one only rate the show and the venue with a lowly Two Stars? ... I felt this was most discourteous and unwarranted. Without being disrespectful, reading through your review, I got the feeling as a piece was being written for some high brow Scientific Journal by being so overtly pedantic, More sour grapes than theatrical passion, what was included that enticed new readers to embrace operetta?. Where was your appreciation of others hard work and effort?... there was no apparent consideration regarding the venues limitations and restrictions... otherwise why note disparagingly "Two Tinny Pianos" ... seemingly implying they ought to have accommodated two Grand pianos, when knowing full well, this feat would be an impossibility in such a tiny space,,, Just appeared rather arrogant! I book to see many G&S events along with numerous other music and theatrical performances each month, and deeply relish everyone of them as each has it's merits. Good shows are hard to find. As they say.... 'Good things come in small packages'... and there is none smaller nor greater than this venues production!. I am very much looking forward to a repeat visit before the event ends on the 18th. Regards Jonathan

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