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Ruddigore – Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Music: Arthur Sullivan

Words: William Schwenck Gilbert

Director: Jo Davies

Conductor: Timothy Henty

Reviewer: Edie R

[rating:4.5]

 

When Ruddygore, the tenth Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, opened in January 1887, its composer Arthur Sullivan recorded that “the audience showed dissatisfaction”; and the comic double-act embarked on a programme of revisions, cuts and plot re-workings to rectify their reception, even altering the spelling of the title. I’d venture to proffer a simpler solution to the maestros. They should just have got Opera North on board.

No self-respecting audience could show dissatisfaction in the face of the technical expertise and bouncy creativity of this production. It’s hard to see how it could be done much better. The orchestra, under Timothy Henty, plays sublimely. The leads are all in fine voice, exploiting their rôles for maximum comic potential, and sometimes beyond: Rebecca Moon lends the rôle of prissy Rose Maybud a refreshing naughtiness and a touch of sex appeal which would make her original blush! Joshua Ellicott, as the laddish Dick Dauntless, joyfully pursues anything in skirts; Gaynor Keeble gives perhaps the best vocal performance of the night as sternly romantic Dame Hannah; and both Richard Burkhard as Sir Despard Murgatroyd, and Grant Doyle as his escapee elder brother, have great fun with their cloaks and crimes. The large chorus sings lustily: there’s a particularly fine posse of Professional Bridesmaids, who break into paeans of “Hail the bridegroom, hail the bride” at the drop of a bouquet, however inauspicious the union!

The operetta itself has dated a little. One of the selling points of Opera North’s revival of Ruddigore is its fidelity to Gilbert and Sullivan’s intentions: David Russell Hulme points out that this is the first time in 120 years that the operetta has been staged as per its creators’ final (re)vision. But if there’s a criticism to be made of this production, it is that it’s a bit ‘too’ faithful. The core storyline of a family of baronets cursed to commit a crime a day, or perish in agony, maintains its enjoyable silliness; but a century-and-a-quarter has rubbed down some of the pointedness of the satire on the British navy, Victorian etiquette and District Visitors.

Directors of the more canonical Savoy Operas, especially the ever-popular Mikado, seem comfortable with the idea of injecting the libretto with revivifying contemporary satire, which can, for example, transform Ko-Ko’s Little List from a tired run-down of Victorian niggles to a punchy string of socio-political gags. Director Jo Davies, in contrast, has a little too much reverence for the original wording of Ruddigore, and some glorious comic potential is accordingly wasted – as is apparent on the single occasion when she does update the lyrics, to superb effect. The updated coda to “Away, Remorse!”, in which the newly baronetted Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd (Grant Doyle) takes delightful side-swipes at Sally Bercow and Sir Peter Viggers’ duck house, is witty and wonderful. And actually these on-the-pulse barbs probably simulate the experience of Gilbert and Sullivan’s first audiences more faithfully than reciting jokes from the original libretto, now more than a hundred years in the staling.

But if the lyrics occasionally drag, the production team have come up with a myriad ways of enlivening it. Gorgeous costumes, stage sets and dancing keep the audience absorbed. The pièce de résistance of the production, the spectacular moment when the portraits of the Murgatroyd ancestors come to life and climb down from their frames, is jaw-droppingly brilliant, thanks to illusionist Paul Kieve and ghost photographers Jeremy Couplan and Mark Longthorn.

This is a transformative production, which should turn Ruddigore from a niche event for die-hard Savoy Opera fans, to a gloriously entertaining evening out for all comers.

Runs until 9th June

 

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