Friday, February 20, 2015

'Ruddigore' at the King's Head Theatre, 19th February 2015

Before Ruddigore the sum total of my Gilbert and Sullivan knowledge came from The Simpsons episode Cape Feare, in which Bart Simpson delays the homicidal Sideshow Bob with a "final request" for the entirety of HMS Pinafore. Based on this (and the odd scrap of knowledge I picked elsewhere) I was pretty sure that Gilbert and Sullivan weren't for me. I figured that Victorian jokes are old hat, the narratives would be firmly on the annoying side of twee and the whole thing would attract a painfully bougie audience.

But having never even heard of Ruddigore I traipsed through the cold, the rain and the dark of a February night to the King's Head Theatre in blissful ignorance. It was only when sat in my seat awaiting the curtain that I realised I what I had signed myself up for. Apprehension curled in my belly like a snake, worsening when they announced that the first half would be an hour and fifteen minutes. I settled back into my seat expecting the worst...

Oh what a fool I've been! To nobodies surprise except my own, Gilbert and Sullivan are really, really good. 

Ruddigore, one of their lesser-performed works, takes place in a small seaside village that exists under the eye of the Baron of Ruddigore. Pastoral and idyllic, the town is populated by dreamy, lovelorn wanderers. Prime among them are Rose Maybud (Rebecca Moon) and Robin Oakapple (Matthew Kellett). Maybud  is perpetually single, finding no man to live up to the exacting specification laid out in an etiquette book. Meanwhile Oakapple secretly adores her, but cannot find the courage to declare his affections. 

Rebecca Moon as Rose Maybud & Cassandra McGowan as Mad Margaret
An opportunity to bring the two together arrives in the form of Oakapple's foster brother Dauntless (Philip Lee), a sailor. Acting as his brother's messenger he visits Maybud but immediately falls head over heels for, instantly proposing marriage. Soon everyone's affections are on the table, with a vacillating Maybud having to pick between the two brothers.

Further complications arise in the form of the 'Bad Baronet of Ruddigore' Sir Despard (John Savournin), heir to both a fortune and a family curse - that he must commit one terrible crime every day or face an excruciating death. From all this a surreal whirlwind arises; affections shift, secrets are revealed, roles exchanged and fate is stymied. All to the tune of some machine-gun quick lyrics and bizarre rhymes.

I've seen a tonne of musicals over the years and have always admired the ability of performers to sing, dance and act all at once. That's a pretty banal observation, but even in big budget West End shows you regularly see people who've nailed just two of the three. But in comparison to almost everything else I've seen, Gilbert and Sullivan felt like 'Expert Mode' for performers.

Here, the cast has to simultaneously navigate dense syllabic forests, maintain an astonishing level of expressiveness and sing with scarily perfect precision. The effect is like peering into some intricate clockwork universe: everything slotting together with immaculate timing. Each cast member gets a moment to in the spotlight, but even here there are some obvious stand-outs.

Cassandra McCowan's 'Mad Margaret' is one of many characters that goes through an uncomfortable transition (from scruffy lunatic to polite wife) but there's few other changes as humourous or layered as hers. Though essentially melancholic in the first act, she at least appears comfortable in her own shoes. By the time we reach the second act we see strangled repression, her old self bubbling up underneath the new. McCowan plays her humourously and humanely: we laugh at her when she's told her opinions "don't matter", but still, we feel bad about it.

John Savournin as Sir Despard.  Brilliant.
Also excellent is Philip Lee's Dauntless, the platonic ideal of the singing sailor. With his enviable comic timing he's a pleasure to watch whenever he's on stage. He's a brilliant reactor to other performances; some of his best moments coming when he's being slyly 'praised' by his foster brother and nervously awaiting a gatecrasher at a wedding. When he's the centre of attention he's also magnificent, his naval jigs reminding me a bit of On the Town.

But the best thing in the show is the gobsmackingly amazing John Savournin; here playing evil barons, decapitated corpses and kindly altruists with equal amounts of style and grace. He's the kind of performer you narrow your eyes at in suspicion, trying to figure out which diabolical demon he sold his soul to in order to get such talent. With his Paul McCartney eyebrows he smartly puzzles his way through each scene, perfectly balancing on the thin edge between camp and seriousness. For every single second he's on stage he's a joy to watch, especially in the wonderful "When the night wind howls" in the second act.

Charles Court Opera and the King's Head Theatre have absolutely sold me on the myriad pleasures of Gilbert and Sullivan. I feel like a bit of a numpty for over-looking them for so long and if this is one of their lesser works I eagerly await the rest. A cracking night at the theatre that puts many of the current West End extravaganzas to shame.


Ruddigore is at the King's Head Theatre until March 14th. Tickets here.

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