Gilbert & Sullivan
Box office: 0844 847 1652 (returns only)
8, 9, 15 and 16 April 2012
This operetta has had a chequered career; it was first performed in 1896, ran for only 123 performances, making it, not only the first financial failure in G&S’s illustrious careers, but also the last production on which they collaborated. One can see why.
A typical Victorian audience must have had a greater depth of knowledge and understanding about all things satirical, political, economical and comical, than their counterparts over a century later, as the play demands a high level of concentration just to unravel the convoluted plot.
As far as one can understand, this involves a troupe of actors trying to depose the eponymous Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, Rudolph, who is planning his wedding to Baroness Caroline von Krakenfeldt the following day, conveniently fogetting that he is already betrothed to the Princess of Monte Carlo, the arrangement of which is to be nullified the following day.
A great deal is to happen ‘the following day’, including the repeal of a 100 year-old law regarding statutory duels, which are decided by the turn of a playing card. Ludwig (Stefan Bednarczyk) the chief comedian of the company is also planning to marry the soubrette Lisa (the following day, of course), and the leading lady, Julia (Charlotte Page), is bound by contract to play the leading role in any production, so if Ernest, the manager becomes the Grand Duke (the following day), she will have to become the Grand Duchess.
There are more shenanigans with statutory duels between Ernest and Ludwig and then Ludwig and Rudolph, with the resulting confusion as to who is technically ‘dead’, and who is not.
In the second act, the cast re-appear in Greek costume (the play they are mounting is Troillus and Cressida, after all) and there some very jolly songs throughout, all performed con gusto and con belto by the twenty or so actors crammed onto the tiny stage, including two keyboard players. Richard Suart is astounding as the lusty, penny-pinching Grand Duke, who ‘can’t think when your veins are full of hot soda-water, and your brain’s fizzing like a firework’.
He then goes on to sing When you find you’re a broken-down critter, with the glorious lines ‘When your legs are as thin as dividers, And you’re plagued with unruly insiders, And your spine is all creepy with spiders, And you’re highly gamboge in the gill’. As ever with the Finborough, this is a class act, enthusiastically performed by the players and greatly appreciated by the audience, who outnumbered them by just over two-to-one.