Ruddigore? Ruddy good fun more like. The latest Gilbert & Sullivan in town brings boundless charm and energy to Wilton’s Music Hall and its always-inviting and impressive auditorium; here put to good use as a misty gothic haunted house. There’s a delicious framing device that accompanies the overture that I won’t share for fear of spoiling the surprise, but we’re gently introduced into a Scooby-Doo world of mystery and possibility from the very opening. Graham Stone as Old Adam Goodheart leads some enchanting physical comedy before a word is uttered, let alone sung. Slightly cartoonish it may be, but there’s no denying we’re successfully drawn in.
This is important because, in different hands, the show’s reputation as a ‘difficult’ example of Gilbert & Sullivan’s work could hang heavily over proceedings. The issues are discussed in excellent programme notes for those interested, but on stage, for the audience, the message is quite definitely the show will go on regardless. At every turn, we are challenged to defy the stuffy moaning of academics, historians and purists and join a glorious, if admittedly quite silly, alternative endeavour. Say no? Decline such a generous invitation? Boo-hiss to you, quite frankly.
Ellie Sayles (Zorah), Eleanor Monaghan (Mercy) and Rosie Weston (Ruth) lead the charm offensive, in the first half at least, as a trio of bridesmaids in desperate need of a bride. At times, with grins affixed like the showbiz troopers they are, they raise laughs through their committed perkiness alone. Madeline Robinson (Rose Maybud), whose mellifluous soprano voice is without question the evening’s musical highlight, is that bride. But who is she to marry? Her on-off romances with delightfully foppish Joe Winter (Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd) and saltier Kieran Parrott (Richard ‘Call me Dick’ Dauntless) form the main business of act one.
When it comes to the interval, I suggest having a large glass of wine or something stronger because what follows is a little bit harder to enjoy. The problem may be Victorian ghost stories are now so familiar and so parodied, it’s hard to grasp there was a time when they didn’t exist. The idea of comic apparitions would have felt radical and novel, if not controversial, to Savoy Opera audiences in 1887. Communing with the dead was the stuff of a new breed of spiritualism that might not have been wholly trustworthy. Today, despite some clever technical jiggery-pokery, all the spookiness feels flat rather than remotely edgy.
Thank God then for Charli Baptie (Mad Margaret) and hardworking Peter Benedict, performing as Sir Despard Murgatroyd as well as taking on directing and producing responsibilities. Their slightly fruity take on the Salvation Army, complete with tambourines, arrives just at the right time to provide light relief. Rosemary Ashe (Dame Hannah) and Steve Watts (Sir Roderic Murgatroyd) lift the spirits too with a genuinely affecting and beautifully sung duet ‘There Grows A Little Flower’. This, given its theme of love transcending the grave, really ought to mark the show’s finale. The overly quick, convenient wrapping up of loose ends that actually follows is an eccentric and ultimately unsatisfying close.
This tricky second half is undoubtedly why Ruddigore is not as common as The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and the rest. On the evidence of this production, however, it doesn’t deserve to be quite so neglected. All the right ingredients are present and correct; beautiful melodies (take a bow Mr Sullivan), a mastery of words (bravo Mr Gilbert) and, perhaps most importantly of all, a lot of fun and laughter. Whether you’re a G&S aficionado or a total beginner, missing this smile-inducing night out might haunt you.
Produced by Oracle Productions
Produced & Directed by: Peter Benedict
Composed by: Arthur Sullivan
Librettist by: W. S. Gilbert
Musical Direction by: Tom Noyes
Choreography by: Adam Haigh
Set & Costume by: David Shields
Lighting Design by: Alistair Lindsey
Ruddigore plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until 25 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.