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Utopia Limited

Gilbert and Sullivan

The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company

Buxton Opera House

August 5 & 6, 2022 (and August 14 & 20 at the Royal Hall, Harrogate);

2 hrs 35 mins

Ben McAteer (King Paramount), Monica McGhee (Zara), Rachel Speirs (Nekaya), Meriel Cunningham (Kalyba) and cast in the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company's Utopia Ltd  (cr Charles Smith)
Everything stops for tea: Ben McAteer (King Paramount), Monica McGhee (Zara), Rachel Speirs (Nekaya), Meriel Cunningham (Kalyba) and cast in the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company's Utopia Limited. All pics: Charles Smith

One of the orchestra members was using the audience loos (which are few anyway) before the show at Buxton on Friday night, so I asked him whether they didn’t provide enough of them backstage.

“Yes,” he said, “but they’re all full of the turns, warming up their voices.”

A tangential illustration of one facet of producing Gilbert & Sullivan’s next-to-last operetta, Utopia Limited – there are an awful lot of cast members. Probably one reason why it’s not done very often.

So credit where it’s due: the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, this year beginning at Buxton and moving on to Harrogate, did us all a good turn by offering the work's first fully-staged professional revival (apart from the D’Oyly Carte’s one attempt) back in 2011, and here it is again.

Jeff Clarke, of Opera della Luna fame, is the director, with Jenny Arnold his inventive choreographer, and John Andrews conducts the G&S Festival’s own National Symphony Orchestra.

The piece, when written in the early 1890s, may have been a bit derivative of past Gilbert and Sullivan glories: Gilbert’s plot is about a distant island that decides to improve itself by adopting all the benefits of Victorian English society – the rulers (and some members) of the Army and Navy, a lawyer, a county councillor, a Lord Chamberlain, and a crafty businessman on the make, and of course there’s much flouncing around in posh costumes and tea consumption. Cue jokes at the expense of all of that, and there are references in the script (and in the score for the latter of them) to both The Mikado and HMS Pinafore.

Clarke has removed the locale from the “luxuriant and tropical landscape” of the original book to a generally Middle Eastern one, with palms and porticoes. He leaves it to the expertise of performers such as Robert Gildon and Giles Davies (as the Wise Men of pre-reform Utopian society) and Ben McAteer to get the story over in Act One, which they do with excellent diction, and there is a delightful character study from Monica McGhee (as Princess Zara, the daughter of the kingdom, who returns from Girton College, Cambridge, to share all she’s learned of enlightened society). She has absorbed the Queen’s English so much, she sounds like the Queen herself.

Meriel Cunningham and Rachel Speirs (the latter stepping up from chorus duties to take the role on August 5) portray her sisters, the young princesses Nekaya and Kalyba as feisty young ladies with their own ideas – an aspect of Gilbert’s young heroines that’s increasingly drawn on these days.

Where Clarke really gets into his stride is the early part of Act Two, with nice touches from lighting designer Matt Cater for a night-time setting, and Anthony Flaum, as Captain Fitzbattleaxe of the First Life Guards (who we soon learn is Princess Zara’s love interest as well as security detail), is very funny as the romantic tenor singer who’s never quite able to deliver when he’s not in the mood. That’s soon followed by a song for the British gentlemen who represent the “Flowers of Progress” – complete with visual props, a mock encore and present-day references to the NHS and fuel prices in its final verse.

Of these Britishers I admired Tim Walton’s highly theatrical Lord Chamberlain and the cockney wide-boy given by Paul Featherstone as businessman Mr Goldbury, and Katharine Taylor-Jones also impressed as The Lady Sophy – the nearest Utopia Limited gets to an elderly bossy-woman role. Cameron Mitchell, Aidan Edwards, Stephen Godward and Ciarán Walker all make strong contributions.

Info and tickets here


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