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Iolanthe rehearsals, credit of Buckingham Photography

“It’s funnier than any production I have ever seen!”

13 May 2018 Suzanne Frost

Christopher Finn plays Iolanthe, the “life and soul of the fairy land” in Sasha Regan’s highly acclaimed all-male version of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-loved operettas. After an overwhelming success in 2011, the production is back on tour and will be visiting Richmond Theatre this May.

London Calling: Were you part of the original cast?
Christopher Finn: Yes, I played Iolanthe in the original production at the Union Theatre, which Sasha Regan owns, and then later at Wilton’s Music Hall. Her all-male productions have a huge fan base and it went down a storm. I believe its her most critically acclaimed Gilbert and Sullivan to date and it is one that I know she is very fond of, and we are all very glad that it is returning for a tour. I am very grateful that I can do it again!
 
LC: Iolanthe seems very much like a Shakespeare parody, there are hints of Midsummer Night’s Dream and a lot of local London references that Shakespeare liked to throw into his comedies.
CF: It does have that vibe to it. Gilbert and Sullivan always tend to have a little bit of political satire. With Iolanthe it’s less hidden. Usually the stories would be set in a foreign country or at sea amongst pirates, whereas Iolanthe is set in the House of Lords. The park that they are in is St. James’ Park, so it’s exactly where that audience at the time would have been when they first saw that production. It would have been relevant to the exact people around them.

 Iolanthe rehearsals, credit of Buckingham Photography

LC:  And it is obviously mocking that Old Boys Club of parliament.
CF: Surprisingly not too dissimilar to now, really. A lot of audiences are responding to the political humour in a way that is wonderful for us - and a little bit like “wow, nothing really changed”…
 
LC: It is definitely a sexual comedy with “women versus men” elements, so why an all-male cast? What does that add or how does it change the play being perceived?
CF: This production starts with schoolboys finding an old theatre and a score of Iolanthe. Sasha’s productions always like to come from a place of innocence and simplicity. So it’s about the innocence of young boys pretending and playing. All of the men are supposed to be very old, all of the women are fairies. You are watching men of a certain age, we are all in our late twenties, playing young schoolboys and also playing women and also playing old men and military men. So no one is playing their actual type. When you are watching them you lose any kind of gender or age or race, you are just watching this fictional innocent narrative being told.
 
LC: Operetta and the whole genre of light entertainment is experiencing a real revival at the moment. It’s very popular because it is so subversive and even though it’s silly, usually very clever! Noel Coward said you have to “take light music seriously”.
CF: Yes. One of the things that is noticeable in this production of Iolanthe is that everything is played remarkably straight and genuine with a lot of belief in what is happening and a lot of truth. As a result, it’s funnier than I’ve ever seen a production of Iolanthe. That is the vibe of most operetta, it’s slightly lighter than opera, although Iolanthe has quite a complex score to it. People go to the opera to listen to the sound, whereas with operetta what is being said and sung is of key importance.

 Christopher Finn - courtesy of Nicholas Dawkes
 
LC: Musically Iolanthe sounds closer to Wagner than Operetta.
CF: It has got some very intense music in it, as sixteen men singing soprano and alto will attest. It is renowned as Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beautiful score, some of it is absolutely gorgeous. When we’ve been listening to it in rehearsals, we heard the influence that Gilbert and Sullivan had on the musical theatre world and modern musicals.
 
LC: Is soprano your usual register?
CF: I am naturally a tenor, so quite a high voice for a man. Iolanthe is actually an alto and her material is placed just a little bit higher than my register. But there are some beautiful voices coming from our soprano cast members. Joe Henry plays Phyllis and anyone who knows the score, knows that that is quite a high one and he is going for it! It’s been a very eye opening experience for me and the other vocalists to find out how we came to have that skill because it is not really trained. Lots of us developed it through teaching girls singing. Joe said when he was young he used to sing along to Phantom of the Opera and that’s how he has that ridiculous soprano. It is a difficult skill to teach and isn’t necessarily called for that much so the fact that we have 16 boys with that skill set is impressive.

 Iolanthe rehearsals, credit of Buckingham Photography

LC: There is also a lot of dancing involved.
CF: Our choreographer Mark Smith runs the company Deaf Men Dancing. He is a deaf choreographer and working with him has been inspiring. Not only is it very balletic, he has also introduced a lot of British sign language. Whenever the fairies speak or sing there is sign language throughout the movement as well as the song and the dance, so there is another language on top, which has been really interesting for the fabulous ensemble we have. They are going for it with sign language and ballet and sopranos and altos. I tip my hat to them!
 
LC: Can you explain a little bit what that Gilbert and Sullivan topsy-turvy world is?
CF: I guess it’s their playful side and their way of subverting the actual thing we are talking about. They are talking about a specific event or a particular prime minster much more actively than they would have been allowed in their time. So topsy-turvy is their way of getting away with it. I very much doubt the audience didn’t know exactly what was being spoken about. It is a world in which play can happen, again kind of like Shakespeare. Lots of Shakespeare’s history plays were tailored to make his point without the world noticing or thinking it was criminal. Censorship was still very much in place. There are a lot of very risqué references in Gilbert and Sullivan and they are getting away with it with a very light touch and a tender heart and some beautiful music.  Which is what operetta is all about.
 
Iolanthe will be at Richmond Theatre from 15 – 19 May.
 
 
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