Sunday, 5 April 2015

Theatre review: Princess Ida

I was due to see Princess Ida last week, but instead spent the afternoon on a District Line train stuck between stations. Although Gilbert and Sullivan aren't one of my biggest theatrical interests, I'd rather decide which shows to see or miss myself, not have TFL do it for me, so I gave it another go. And I'm glad I did - apart from anything else if a piece by writers this popular is being staged at the Finborough, you know it'll be one that's slipped through the cracks and doesn't get performed often. Although adaptor-director Phil Willmott hopes to change that - Princess Ida as written has apparently dated badly and is structured in a confusing way that puts people off. So he's given it a more linear telling of the story of Ida (Bridget Costello,) who has many suitors but, on the day she turns 21, her guardian Gama (Simon Butteriss) decides he'd much rather marry her himself. To keep her away from rivals he convinces her that men are beasts to be avoided, and she should establish a women-only university.

In fact, in a long-forgotten piece of dipolmacy, Ida was married off as a baby to Prince Hilarion (Zac Wancke.) Finding her fled to the mountains, he goes off to convince her not all men are as bad as she's heard.

The 1884 operetta satirises a number of issues that would have been controversial at the time - Darwin is an early target, Gama giving Ida a skewed view of evolution as proof that all men are apes. And the scenes at the all-female college are an obvious comment on women's demands for education and suffrage. But at heart, in Willmott's version at least, Princess Ida is a silly fairytale and a lot of fun.

The central plot point sees Hilarion and two of the other suitors, Princes Cyril (Simeon Oakes) and Florian (Jeremy Lloyd - Hugh Bonneville's Mini-Me,) disguising themselves as women to infiltrate the college. There's enough strong patter songs, funny lyrics and good tunes to make me think Willmott is right to believe it must be the original book that's made this one so obscure.

It's a likeable and energetic production with the music arranged for two pianos and mostly strong voices - a couple of the supporting players had trouble hitting the odd note this afternoon but nothing to derail the show. With the Finborough seeking more transfers to pay for the rent hike this could well be a production with a further life in it (although, unusually for G&S in a small venue, it doesn't seem to have sold out.) If not, I don't see why the playful new libretto (I'm going to take a wild guess the line "terrifying lesbians" doesn't appear in Gilbert's original) shouldn't achieve its goal of bringing Princess Ida back into the repertoire.

Princess Ida by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is booking until the 18th of April at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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