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Operetta Review: Ruddigore (King’s Head Theatre, London)

ruddigore
Ha! Ha! Simon-Masterton (left) and Matthew Kellett (right). Photograph: courtesy of Bill Knight.

Ha! Ha! Simon-Masterton (left) and Matthew Kellett (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

In A Nutshell

Charles Court Opera ham up Hammer Horror to give Ruddigore a gloriously Gothic and ludicrous sheen for their tenth anniversary production.

Overview

In the quiet Cornish seaside town there’s a maiden who’s waiting for the right man to woo her, and a young farmer who can’t pluck up the courage to do so. But there’s also a witch’s curse that plagues an ancient bloodline, a frisky sailor, and a bad baronet of Ruddigore to contend with.

Music & Libretto

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s Ruddigore is typical and familiar of their celebrated genre. Expect quick-fire patter songs, tender love songs, paradoxes, and a ridiculous amount of silliness. Yet whilst Ruddigore carries all the familiar tropes of your standard G&S operetta, it’s just not as catchy or as infectious as their more familiar works, such as The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, or The Mikado.

The reason is because in their other most renowned works Gilbert & Sullivan send up the establishment. There’s a biting wit and satire in their disdain of the ruling class that really drives a frenetic comedy and farce within them. However, in Ruddigore we don’t have this. Whilst they wonderfully lambaste social ettiquette, there’s little in the way of anything particularly biting. It’s a straight forward supernatural farce that, whilst still has a great deal of wit, doesn’t really stand out as something too satirical.

Narratively, the story isn’t as tight as a niftily paced as it’s contemporaries. The story ambles through establishing itself a little too leisurely, and even in the crux of the action, everything feels a little drawn out. Compared to other G&S operettas, it feels like there’s isn’t as much cheeky substance to make fun of as there is elsewhere, and everything feels a touch padded. Because of this, there are moments where both the music and the lyrics run away with themselves a little, feeling a bit messy and feeling a bit sillier than usual: G&S has always been very silly but it’s more noticeable where there aren’t as many intelligent take-downs involved. Subsequently, although the songs are still enjoyable, they aren’t easily memorable both lyrically and musically.

But that’s not to say that Ruddigore is as bad an operetta as the titular baronet; it’s still frisky, fun, and very entertaining. But it’s just lacking a spunk of inspiration that Gilbert & Sullivan are better known for, and would explain why we don’t see Ruddigore performed as often as other works in the G&S anthology.

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Born to be a bad baronet. John Savournin as Sir Despard. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Direction & Production

John Savournin and the Charles Court Opera have built an incredible reputation for the brilliant executed boutique productions of G&S for the last ten years. Therefore, especially marking the company’s tenth anniversary, expectations, as always, are very high. As always, they have effortlessly met them.

Savournin’s key to producing such brilliant productions of Gilbert & Sullivan is the understanding that their operettas are essentially opera-pantos, recognising W.S. Gilbert’s own work on pantomime before his acclaimed and infamous partnership with Arthur Sullivan. Therefore, in directing Ruddigore, he understands the pitch and energy required to pull it off as an exquisite comedy. It explains the company are also a dab-hand at putting on such painfully funny pantomimes every year, too, and why other productions fall short, such as Thom Sutherland’s Mikado.

Directing, Savournin ensures that everything in Ruddigore is larger than life, over the top, and incredibly funny in how it’s approached and performed. He finds little jokes not just in its presentation and its libretto, but also in the music itself. For example, there was some wonderfully unexpected laughs to be had in the wedding madrigal where little nuances in the rich contrapuntal harmonies are intentionally exploited to form punch-lines that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The proof of Savournin’s ability is in just how much the show is carried by the action, rather than relying on it’s aesthetics and stagecraft. Whilst James Perkin’s stage sets the scene – a wonderful little seaside promenade – there’s little that is actually done with it. Everything that happens, all the laughs and the energy that swaggers through the show, is done at the helm of Savournin’s direction, the casts ability, and Phillip Aiden’s lively choreography. But in saying that, there are things hidden with Perkin’s set that, even though are seldom used, spur the audience into fits of laughter at accommodating some inspired moments. The entire production knows that how much it needs and from where, resulting in a meticulous masterclass in comic opera if there ever was one.

The main draw of this production of Ruddigore, however, is that it’s redressed in the style of a Hammer Horror film. Whilst it might seem at first novel, it’s actually a perfect stylisation that adds a fantastic sense of substance by way of galvanising the operetta with an extra sense of ludicrous camp that adds laughs in abundance. You’re left thinking that it’s actually a real shame that Christopher Lee never appeared in Ruddigore himself! It’s an inspired and bang on target idea that really lifts what is otherwise not G&S’ best.

Musically, David Eaton at the helm accompanies the cast on a single piano with polished sheen, working closely with the performers to follow and tease out some brilliant performances. At his talented fingertips, you don’t miss the rich orchestrations of Sullivan’s music or notice that there isn’t a chorus of twenty where there otherwise would be. He directs and tempers the score to ensure that the core comic and musical elements are never lost. For example, as much as speed and articulate dexterity is important in the many patter songs in Ruddigore, they’re never taken so fast as to lose the comedy of the lyrics therein, or leave too little room for the audience to react.

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As Rose by any other name. Rebecca Moon (left) and Philip Lee (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Cast

Savournin leads an exceptional operatic cast who have superb comedic qualities. Often have I praised Savournin as a performer with an almost inhumanly hilarious talent. He can have the audience erupt into side-splitting roars at the command of as little as a well expressed and timed glance. He’s the ideal performer to play Sir Despard, looming and full of flamboyant and campy exuberance.

But what’s wonderful about Ruddigore is that the rest of Savournin’s company really rise to meet his prowess. Matthew Kellett is wonderful as Robin Oakapple. Like Savournin, as a performer he’s understands G&S through and through and prises out a well pitched silliness to everything he does. Elsewhere, he exudes a wonderfully sarcastic and long-suffering quality for which the entire company bounces off. Yet, it’s not just Savournin and Kellett that are superlative. A high standard of talent runs right through the entire company right down to the lesser roles, including Susanna Buckle and Andrea Tweedale as the birdesmaids who peddal out as much on-cue guffaws as the rest of the cast.

Even though comic ability is vital in any G&S operetta, the Charles Court Opera Company also double as sublime singers too. They collectively produce a luscious and joyful noise as well as individually being aurally captivating. Rebecca Moon as Rose Maybud has a sweet and richly-rounded voice, Cassandra McCowan sings with a wonderful crystal shrill as Mad Margaret, and Philip Lee as Richard Duantless bellows with briny bravado.

Verdict

Whilst Ruddigore might not be Gilbert & Sullivan at their best, it’s absolutely Charles Court Opera Company at theirs. Any goosebumps here aren’t from the ghoulish Hammer Horror resetting, but from this scarily funny and uproarious production.

Ruddigore plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, until 14 March 2015. Tickets are £22.50-£25 (concessions available). To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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