Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard sits uncomfortably in the repertoire. From one side, it is Sullivan’s best work with Gilbert, but alas, the humourist was out of his depth. What came out of the collaboration is some beautiful merrie English music with a clunky libretto purposely free of the characteristic topsy-turvydom, but without any compensating nod to spectacle or seria, leaving the show tonally adrift.
ENO have a string of camp and cheery productions from the stylishness of Jonathan Miller and Mike Leigh’s Mikado and Pirates to the pantomime buffoonery of Cal McCrystal’s Iolanthe and Pinafore and they’re looking to add a Yeomen of the Guard as part of their programme to celebrate Elizabeth Windsor’s jubilee (whoops). I think we’re going to have to start treating Yeomen as cursed.
Jo Davies’ new production puts the beefeaters in coronation year 1953. We are treated to gorgeous period design by Anthony Ward, well-lit to create a gloomy atmosphere by Oliver Fenwick. Ward creates a very stylish set which gives plenty of space for action and does its best to find place for every scene. There’s upping and downing of portcullis and the rattle of chains, and in the grand scena of Act I, in comes the tower from on the hill.
If you’re going to put on a bit of a weird plodder (with the promise a new edition and updates to the libretto to boot) you’ve got to be committed to fixing it. Die-hard Savoyards are sympathetic to amends and updates to keep productions alive. The libretto has tweaks, such as Colonel Fairfax is no longer a sorcerer awaiting his execution but spy and Jack Point laments on Brexit (ENO, I am putting down my oat milk latte to beg that you get another joke) but is too cautious to make helpful changes and instead just fluffs around the edges.
Davies does great work with a chorus, keeping them moving, fluid and always finding their place. She creates an eerie grand tableau here and there but unfortunately does nothing to resolve the rootlessness of the show. The principal cast seem to be out on their own. They’ve clearly been given no real help to find their character, which makes Elsie and Phoebe pretty much interchangeable and the gallant Sergeant Meryll as just a bit wet. Other than a reliably fantastic voice in Anthony Gregory, we’re not too sure what the girls see in Colonel Fairfax.
Overall, there’s varied skill from the cast assembled, Alexandra Oomens’ Elsie is a delight, she sings with great clarity of voice and truly with ease, making you wish Sullivan had thrown her a little more meat and been a bit more adventurous – she could certainly handle it. On the very opposite end, you don’t quite realise how many songs Jack Point has until seeing Richard McCabe bubble his way through the role. He is a fine actor but not a singer and struggles throughout despite mic support. His part is cut from the trio and quartet in Act II, but if you squint you can see his lips moving. It’s a lopsided show.
It’s a drag and then some. The patter song from Ruddigore is spliced into the penultimate scene, which would normally be a welcome treat, but it is sung poorly and at a snail’s pace and only really prolongs a long evening. Clocking in at three hours (over the two hours 40 advertised), perhaps it’s not just Fairfax that should be up for the chop.
Conductor: Chris Hopkins
Director: Jo Davies
Designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Choreographer: Kay Shepherd
Yeomen of the Guard plays at London Coliseum until 2 December 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.