Monday 20 March 2023

Gilbert & Sullivan : All-singing, all-dancing small-scale Ruddigore at Wilton's Music Hall

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Peter Benedict, Charli Baptie - Oracle Productions at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo by Mark Senior)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Peter Benedict, Charli Baptie - Oracle Productions at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo by Mark Senior)

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore; Madeline Robinson, Charli Baptie, Rosemary Ashe, Joe Winter, Kieran Parrott, Peter Benedict, Graham Stone, Steve Watts, director: Peter Benedict, musical director: Tom Noyes; Oracle Productions at Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed 17 March 2023

An engaging take on the G&S classic with winning individual performances and the sheer energy of the dancing chorus, you could not help but be won over.

It is rather apt that Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore be played at Wilton's Music Hall, the operetta premiered in 1887 and the present theatre opened in 1878. Not that Gilbert or Sullivan would have imagined the one being paired with the other, their theatrical and musical requirements were rather more large-scale (think of the opening chorus of Patience, 'twenty love-sick maidens'). But, with few London theatres remaining from this period, it was delightful to encounter Oracle Productions' enterprising small-scale production of Ruddigore at Wilton's, with Madeline Robinson as Rose Maybud, Charlie Baptie as Mad Margaret, Rosemary Ashe as Dame Hannah, Joe Winter as Robin Oakapple, Kieran Parrott as Richard Dauntless, Peter Benedict as Sir Despard Murgatroyd, Graham Stone as Old Adam and Steve Watts as Sir Roderick. The production was directed by Peter Benedict and Tom Noyes accompanied from a keyboard/synthesizer with contributions from Luca Kocsmárszky (violin).

This was definitely a slimline production, we had three bridesmaids (Ellie Sayles, Eleanor Monaghan and Rosie Weston) and Kieran Parrott's Richard Dauntless was accompanied by two shipmates  (Max Panks and Edward Watchman). The original libretto's slightly awkward mixing of different chorus groups was simplified and we had bridesmaids and sailors throughout, with the chorus of ghosts in Act Two being sung off-stage. But if this sounds thin pickings, then it is worth bearing in mind that Wilton's stage is not large and the six managed to fill it admirably especially as this was definitely an all-singing, all-dancing production (choreography by Adam Haigh).

Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Joe Winter, Madeline Robinson - Oracle Productions at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo by Mark Senior)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Ruddigore - Joe Winter, Madeline Robinson - Oracle Productions at Wilton's Music Hall (Photo by Mark Senior)

During the overture we saw modern guests arriving at the Ruddigore Hotel, to be drugged by the staff (Old Adam and Dame Hannah). These guests then acted out the drama, which seems to have been set roughly in the 1920s (based on Rose Maybud's initial costume). Rather curiously, this set-up was never mentioned again which seemed a little like a loss of nerve. Ruddigore is one of my favourite G&S operas (perhaps the favourite), but its send-up of the Victorian melodrama genre is tricky nowadays. The original audience would have recognised all the tropes and delighted that the virtuous hero turns out to be a villain and the villain turns out to be good!

But there are musical tropes too. the chorus of professional bridesmaids is straight out of Weber, only these are disenchanted because of a lack of weddings. And Mad Margaret might be a contralto (she had to be, the batty old ladies in these operas were always contraltos) but she is introduced by a flute obbligato, straight out of Donizetti.

The beauty of Benedict's production was that he managed to make it funny, but never sent the work up. His set-up, of having modern people acting it out, remained to the extent that the characters felt able to share a knowing wink at the audience. So, when we find out that Robin Oakapple is really Despard Murgatroyd's elder brother, despite looking half his age, we got a knowing look from Madeline Robinson's Rose Maybud. In the long first act, I wanted a bit more edge and point. Lacking the well-upholstered sound of Sullivan's full orchestra and chorus, there were moments that felt a bit thin, greater edge and bite would have been welcome. But there is no doubting the cast's energy and liveliness, keeping the plot moving and filling the stage with colour and movement, particularly the hardworking chorines with their professional bridesmaid smiles and the constantly hearty sailors. Rather remarkably, Benedict managed to steer clear of camp, almost entirely, usually a tricky task when you have a cast of dancing sailors!

Act Two, when the plot gets interesting, enabled the production to show its virtues. The ghosts were treated entirely seriously, which is what Sullivan intended. Here, we had the ghosts in their picture frames but animated, like the pictures at Hogwarts, yet sung off-stage. Only Steve Watts as an impressive Sir Roderick was fully present. Yes, I missed a full choral sound and Sullivan's fine orchestration here, but theatrically the scene was very effective indeed.

The cast was a mix of musical theatre and operatic training, with the former predominating. This brought quite a particular sound to the show, Kieran Parrott's lively and engaging Richard Dauntless had a fine voice but one straight out of West End musical theatre. By contrast, Madeline Robinson brought operatic zing to her Rose Maybud, whilst her on-off love interest, Robin Oakapple was the delightfully callow form of Joe Winter. Winter's voice felt a little light for the role, but in this context worked well. Peter Benedict made a wonderfully theatrical Sir Despard, the evil baronet in Act One. Benedict's voice was serviceable rather than strong, but his theatrical grasp of the role carried all before it. Charli Baptie wonderfully channelled both Lucia di Lammermoor and Miss Havisham for her Mad Margaret. And when the two returned as reformed characters in Act Two, they were reincarnated as Salvation Army officers. Priceless.

The smaller roles were well taken. Rosemary Ashe (the original Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera) was strong casting as Dame Hannah, despatching her early solo with relish and providing firm characterisation throughout. She was matched by Graham Stone's equally characterful Old Adam, thankfully not falling very far into comic old retainer mode.

The diction was rather mixed. The dialogue worked well, but not all of Gilbert's swift patter came over adequately; G&S is, I am afraid, a rather particular skill and whilst musically this performance was impressive, there were moments when I wanted more text.

Tom Noyes directed from a synthesizer that sounded attractively varied and sympathetic, though occasionally we lacked the vivid depth that a full orchestra could bring. Except, of course, there is no room for that in Wilton's!

This was an evening full of lively performances and an engaging take on the G&S classic. It didn't quite reach all the goals that the performance strained for, but with winning individual performances and the sheer energy of the dancing chorus, you could not help but be won over.

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