A production defined by a dramatic gesture from a dramatic jester.
All of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creations are parodies of traditional literary and theatrical devices, as they include a villain who is the cleverest one in the piece and a fickle chorus that always agrees with the last person who spoke. The Yeomen of the Guard is no exception because when Jack Point hears of Elsie Maynard’s misfortune and sings ‘Oh, woe is me, I rather think!’ he parallels Arveragus in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale who tells Dorigen to do the honourable thing, but shows little regard for her own distress proclaiming ‘As I best may, I will my woe endure’. If the pair’s works are parodies to begin with, however, then Yeomen is a parody of a parody because it satirises all of their own conventions. Normally, all of the final couples that form are happy with the exception of one that has been thrust together by circumstances, whereas here all of the pairings, except one, are the product of blackmail. Unusually, it begins not with a mass chorus, but with a single woman on stage in a move that was still seen as revolutionary over half a century later when Oklahoma! did the same. Above all, and uniquely among Gilbert and Sullivan’s creations, it sees one character who ends up alone seemingly die of a broken heart.
Christopher Luscombe’s production for The Grange Festival sets the action not in the 16th century, but towards the start of the 20th. This is clever because it emphasises how out of date and out of touch the Yeomen are, as is alluded to in ‘Tower warders, under orders’, by contrasting their traditional costumes with Sir Richard Cholmondeley’s trim modern uniform. Even cleverer is the fact that adding on four hundred years actually makes little difference because the Yeomen already felt like a permanent fixture in the 16th century so no obvious updates to the text are required. One reference to the English Civil War is inserted, but that is about as far as the changes go.
Simon Higlett’s set looks gorgeous and is so well made that it gives the audience confidence before anyone has sung a single note. It depicts a courtyard within the Tower of London and quite a homely one at that with Phoebe frequently emerging from the Meryll’s house at one end of the row, and Dame Carruthers often standing in the doorway of her own. The buildings combine brickwork with timber frames, flowers surround their doors, and a balcony allows some people to emerge onto it for the large chorus scenes. A cannon and gallows also appear in the square, which are vital to both the ambience and the plot, although the consequence is that they can restrict movement. If, however, there are times when the chorus appear without really doing very much, the atmosphere is strong throughout as, thanks to the appearance of a gaslight and Paul Pyant’s excellent lighting designs, we really feel that the start of Act II takes place in the dead of night.
“…Yeomen is a parody of a parody…”
The high calibre cast certainly delivers the goods as John Savournin, with his sure command of the Gilbert and Sullivan style, gets the character of Sir Richard Cholmondeley down to a tee so that his excellent bass-baritone almost feels like a bonus. Nick Pritchard, with a smooth tenor that lifts ‘Is life a boon?’ and ‘Free from his fetters grim’ to soaring heights, captures Colonel Fairfax’s courage and bravery alongside his arrogance and sense of superiority. Angela Simkin, with her full and nuanced mezzo-soprano, tremendous accent and perfect demeanour for the role, is also a first rate Phoebe.
Some of the ensemble singing stands out in particular, with the four-part ‘Strange adventure’, which includes Caroline Taylor as Kate, being especially persuasive. Several duets also see the performers go to town. Nicholas Crawley, who asserts his bass-baritone to great effect, is suitably oafish as Wilfred Shadbolt, and his duet ‘Hereupon we’re both agreed’ with the jester Jack Point is highly dynamic as choreographer Ewan Jones has them portraying a cock and bull in line with the tale they plan to tell. Graeme Broadbent, with his peerless bass, is luxury casting as Sergeant Meryll. No less so is Heather Shipp as Dame Carruthers, as her rich mezzo-soprano is complemented by a suitably haughty manner, and their performance of ‘Rapture, rapture’ brings the house down. In the pit, John Andrews leads a compelling account of the score as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra achieves high levels of precision while giving the music a free, easy and, above all, natural feel.
At the centre of the evening lies Ellie Laugharne’s Elsie Maynard and Nick Haverson’s Jack Point. Laugharne is simply spot on throughout with her beautiful soprano and impeccable gestures, which include actions to the words she sings in ‘The Merryman and his Maid’. Haverson may not seem like the strongest singer when put in this company, and Point’s ‘Oh! a private buffoon is a light-hearted loon’ is actually omitted, but that does not matter for this role and his acting is of the highest standard. He genuinely feels like a music hall performer who can do the talk, keep the flow and command the stage, so that we entirely forget he is actually delivering planned lines. The ending, in particular, packs a real punch in being essentially the same as the original only with a very important twist. Quite the impact it has is revealed by the fact that as the lights fall the rapturous applause is complemented by an audible ‘woah’ from the audience. It would be wrong to give away what happens, but suffice to say it involves a dramatic gesture from a highly dramatic jester.
• The Grange Festival’s 2022 season continues until 14 July. For further details and tickets visit its website.