Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience sits on the outer edge of what could be considered their first folio. It was written in the sweet spot after the pair got into their stride and before they fell out with each other. Patience is a staple of the amateur and semi-pro canon but, unlike Pirates, Pinafore and The Mikado, there are few professional companies with a revivable production.
Charles Court Opera are a company always on the up. Having outgrown The Kings Head Theatre, they have taking over Wilton’s Music Hall and even Opera Holland Park. As such, the bar is getting higher and higher for what we can expect from this plucky company. However, this revival feels like a short step back.
In traditional Charles Court Opera style, the chorus is stripped away, with the principles filling in to sing their parts, often with some nifty line splitting to flesh out some characters. What is left is a neat ensemble piece accompanied by Musical Director David Eaton on piano. He ensures that the whole show sounds familiar, but with a slight tinge of its own colour.
We’ve lost seventeen of the ‘twenty lovesick maidens we’ and instead have ‘melancholic maidens three’. There is a fun game to be had in recognising subtle substitutions in the libretto for those of us who know Gilbert’s text word for word.
Going in dry without an overture, in this production our quite melancholic and a little bit gothic maidens prop up the bar at The Castle Pub, whilst milkmaid turned barmaid, Patience (Catriona Hewitson), pulls pints. Saint John Savournin of the Savoyards, covering Bunthorne for the evening, enters to cheers from the audience. Here is Bunthorne, in cape and mascara. He is no longer an effete aesthete of the Swinburne and Morris mould but a very Victorian steampunk poet, or a gothic novelist. The 45th Dragoon guards are modernised into contempory-ish formal garb.
It’s a stunning cast and fantastic to have Hewitson, who starred in Scottish Opera’s truly amazing Gondoliers earlier this year, in the title role. She is a fantastic and charming Patience and sings the role well. John Savournin too is in great voice and fills Wilton’s to the brim, playing Bunthorne straight, without the ‘wink wink’ queer coding of traditional performances.
Unfortunately, the show takes a long while to get its legs and there’s a lot of standing here and walking there. The set is awkward; it pushes forward and flattens out the direction, and Wilton’s split-level stage proves to be a bit cumbersome. The Major’s patter song is sung ok but needs some work to make it sparkle and perhaps a little bit more to make it at all distinguishable from the dragoons’ other songs.
Thankfully, Matthew Siveter enters as a wonderful Grosvenor that really gets the show moving. Siveter is a fantastic scene partner to all, thoroughly engaging and a much-needed camp presence. By the Act I finale they are finally all warmed up and giving us some action and quite literally a better song and dance. Testament to how well turning this into an ensemble piece works, the Act I sextet feels more intimate and tender than ever and shows off what a brilliant cast Charles Court Opera can bring together.
Act II is an almost completely different show. Now we’re cooking with gas. We’re finally into a more fun and silly performance and the jokes land all the better for it, it’s just such a shame that it’s a bit too little too late. This uneven production is an unfortunate blip from one of the best and most inventive Gilbert and Sullivan producers in the country.
Libretto and music by: Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by: John Savournin
Musical Direction by: David Eaton
Design by: Simon Bejer
Produced by: Charles Court Opera
Patience has completed its current run. You can find more information about this and other work by Charles Court Opera on their website here.