Vivacious, Victorian, and very good fun: Ruddigore, Gilbert & Sullivan, Southgate Opera

We tend to think of Victorian society as morally strict, judgemental, and socially tense: and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, while confirming all the above, savagely pokes fun at Victorian ideals of social and moral perfection, pushing stereotypes to extremes in order to satirise the question of private and public goodness from all sorts of different angles. The young orphan Rose Maybud is so enslaved to her book of etiquette that she feels cannot express partiality for the man she loves, ‘Robin Oakapple’, who has “the manners of a Marquis and the morals of a Methodist” – but is in fact Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, hiding from his true destiny of evil as Baron of Ruddigore, whose family curse determines he must carry out a sin each day, like it or not. Ruthven’s brother Despard, forced to execute the curse in his absence, piously atones for each crime with a corresponding daily act of public benefit, and fantasises about being good. From these hilariously fixed, repressed characters, Ruddigore brews an absurdist chaos of Victorian manners and morals on stage which bursts with self-aware English humour, characteristic quickfire comic exchanges, and faux-Gothic melodrama; add in a chorus of ghostly ancestors, a team of professional bridesmaids and a troupe of jolly sailors, and the madness truly kicks off, backed up by surging melodies and tunes which keep you humming all the way home.

Southgate Opera’s period-perfect Ruddigore occupies a large, lavish set at Wyllyott’s Theatre, clearly keen to honour the letter, as well as the spirit, of the original, with gallons of detail lovingly included in an amateur production which seems to have commandeered an extraordinary range of talents across the Southgate community. Our fishing village (Rederring) for Act 1 boasts a glorious, Canaletto-like painted backdrop, a Punch & Judy, and an elegant harbourside café presided over by the redoubtable Dame Hannah, a fiery spinster later revealed to have a romantic history of her own with another Baron Murgatroyd, played with gusto and good humour by warm-voiced and compelling mezzo Marianne Wentzel. The numerous company of Southgate Opera, resplendent in strongly Victorian costumes, fill this stage with colour and life; company-wide chorus moments are vivid and musically enjoyable, if not always vocally clear, though the Ghosts’ Chorus are reliably excellent (and spooky). In Act 2, Ruddigore Castle’s picture gallery is brought to life with five life-sized canvases of painted historical figures (a Tudor, a Cavalier, and so on) which magically ‘disappear’, leaving black silhouettes in their frames, when the ghosts – including, hilariously, a white-robed friar – descend onto the stage to harangue the reluctant Ruthven. Director Lee Mason keeps her company busy and active, with plenty of dancing, physical comedy and constant stage action which matches the fizzing energy of the score. Physical comedy in particular, well-coordinated and well timed, is one of the strengths of this production: the ‘torture’ the Barons of Ruddigore face turns out to be being tickled with feathers by all the ghosts at once, reducing Ruthven to writhing agony, while Mad Margaret, well acted by a huskily-voiced Lucy Woods, ecstatically hugs increasingly dangerous parts of her beloved Sir Despard before being quelled by her soothing safe word, “Basingstoke”. Mason paces the production well, keeping energy buzzing but allowing each joke enough time to reach the audience, stage gestures clarifying and enhancing the narrative all the way through. This is Gilbert and Sullivan to revel in, rather than to rush through, and it really brings the operetta alive.

Musical Director Neil Cloake also paces things well, and even the most rapid G&S gunfire passages are always intelligible as a result. While the orchestra lacks clarity and finesse, it produces a generally competent accompaniment with a few fine moments – such as a lovely flute solo from Liz Marshall. As we might expect in an amateur production, we have a range of voices on stage, but several of the principals are strong, gifted and experienced singers. Star of the night is certainly Peter Whiting’s brilliantly imagined, beautifully clear Robin (aka Sir Ruthven), a part he seems born to play. Whiting throws himself into the role with courage and consummate skill, his crisp diction allowing every word to reach the audience, his acting giving us deep, melodramatic emotion and wry humour by turns, and his lyrical baritone well up to the challenge. Another bit of luxury casting is Colin Davis’ genial, charming Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, his warm bass-baritone a pleasure in his pathos-laden duet with Dame Hannah, “There grew a little flower”, the emotional highlight of the evening. Emma Davis’ sweet Rose Maybud is nicely sung in a light, clear soprano which explores her role’s lovely melodies with obvious enjoyment; although less poised or convincing in spoken exchanges, Davis interacts well with Rose’s all-important Book of Etiquette, remaining serious and detached with all her lovers while clearly showing her attraction to Ruthven. Gavin Jarvis gives a dynamic, charismatic performance as Richard Dauntless, the bumptious sailor who, after one look at Rose, decides to try to win her for himself, rather than for his foster-brother ‘Robin’. Although by the final performance of the run his voice was showing signs of wear, his acting and dancing both show Jarvis’ gift for physical expression on stage.

The overall effect is a faithful, confident and competent account of Ruddigore which shines with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and care in the best tradition of amateur theatre: and the evident joy on stage, as well as in the audience, was its own tribute to this production’s success.

Reviewed at Wyllyott’s Theatre, Potters Bar on Saturday 10 February 2018 (matinee performance)

Rating: Three

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