On a clean, largely clear stage, dotted with a few barrels and benches, a tidy vegetable stand to one side and a pub sign, The Four Bears, to the other, a stormy sky lours menacingly at us, cradling a high, full moon at its corner. Cambridge University Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s Ruddigore starts as it means to go on: a crisp, sharp, and simple rendering, slimmed down (with some verbal exchanges significantly edited) to create more intense focus on the ghoulish bones of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic ghost story, a faux-Gothic comedy of manners which pokes fun at Victorian social posturing, but slyly asks more daring questions about our tolerance of vice, just when its self-parodying humour has finally lulled us into thinking that nothing remotely dangerous is being said.
The biggest gain from this act of deliberate simplification is clarity: I found myself repeatedly thinking what a brilliant production this would be for children, with its unhesitating narrative development portrayed so cleanly and directly on stage, thanks to Gabriella Gormley’s eye-catchingly minimalist set design and simple, subtle direction from Ed Green and Anna Smith. High art is a key inspiration, with the auditorium in the second half hung with art masterworks from Caravaggio to Munch and Magritte, each one brought to life in costume by the Chorus of Ancestors. Clarity, and in particular unity, also flows from the orchestra under the baton of Stephanie Childress, a seriously exciting (and unnervingly young) talent who conjures a lithe, supple and above all united sound from her instrumentalists, full of atmosphere, drama and poise. Childress’ command of her orchestra brings verve, bite and gravity to the score’s darker moments, while exulting merrily in its racier passages, and the sheer musicality of this production is another of its strengths.
However, pacing is everything in G&S, particularly for the punishingly multisyllabic tour-de-force numbers so beloved by librettist W.S. Gilbert, and it is always tempting – and dangerous – to take these at a gallop. Too often, perhaps due to youthful exuberance, CU G&S Soc set off on these rocky roads with reckless abandon at unrealistic speeds, risking two regular casualties: the sense of what was supposed to be being said, and the jokes. Some of the piece’s finest and swiftest comic gems, consequently, pass the audience by in a blur: and while this production keeps our attention with its stylish intensity, it loses a little of its charm by rushing headlong through moments which, given half a thought more time, might have landed more securely in our minds – and our hearts.
Nevertheless, despite the rushed and flurried passages, we had some fine performances benefiting from lyrical, balanced singing throughout the evening: the cast boasted a nice range of colours in their voices, with Sullivan’s harmonies vividly realised on stage. Most polished of all was Luke Thomas, exceptionally commanding as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, his costume inspired by the 1835 portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Philips, with a bass-baritone enviably clear and resonant, and his acting flawless. Thomas’ “When the night wind howls” was simply excellent. Jonatan Rostén’s Sir Despard Murgatroyd was similarly compelling, with a nice balance of hyperbole and disarming naturalism in his dramatic approach which works so well for the highly coloured, self-conscious world of Gilbert & Sullivan, and a wonderfully intense, dark voice. Rostén’s was also the standout best biography in the attractive programme, designed with notable skill and humour by Ed Bankes.
Richard Decker’s Dame Hannah was beautifully sung in an excitingly silky, cool countertenor which fitted the role perfectly; a clear G&S natural with a memorable voice which already sounds promisingly versatile, more assurance in Decker’s acting and stagecraft will improve his eyecatching performance. Katie Green’s rose-shredding Mad Margaret delivered plenty of raw, dark energy with nuttiness and pathos on stage, revelling in this complex and comic role with her large and lovely mezzo. James Ward’s sonorous, majestic Adam Goodheart was delightful in song and ambitiously husky in speech, with more than a touch of Lurch (the Addams family butler) about him, ideal for Ruddigore’s Gothic setting; though a few words were occasionally difficult to understand, Ward’s evil laugh was a triumph of the genre.
Robert Nicholas made a pleasingly sincere Robin Oakapple with a fresh, unadorned tenor and brilliantly clear diction, though his tendency to rush lines occasionally challenged his otherwise competent acting. Nicholas brought wonderful strength to “Away, remorse” and gave us the original patter song to follow, “For thirty-five years I’ve been sober and wary” – it was a real treat to hear this rare, witty passage at all, particularly when delivered with such poise and panache. Eleanor Burke’s prim Rose Maybud was well executed with a clear, agile soprano and some fine acting; though her focus could waver occasionally, and her voice sounded a little unsupported at times, Burke brought a nice fussiness to her interactions with both Robin and her unlucky sailor admirer, played by Michael Morrison. Morrison’s intense, Irish Richard Dauntless generally came across well, with a nice hornpipe, though Morrison did also fall victim to rushing, and the strength of his accent sometimes got the better of the sense of his lines. Morrison’s “O give me shelter” was particularly finely sung.
Of the professional bridesmaids, Eleanor Thompson stood out for her notable stage presence and superb acting. The Chorus of Ghostly Ancestors, each one dressed to represent the star of a seminal artwork from Caravaggio’s Boy bitten by a Lizard to Munch’s The Scream and Magritte’s The Son of Man, made a brilliant, warm sound, visually arresting and dramatically menacing as they tortured their descendant Ruthven with pain emanating invisibly from their fingertips. Ruddigore Castle was simply yet powerfully evoked with projections of Gothic tracery windows on the floor, and well-timed atmospheric lighting by Jonathan French and James Ireland. The production closed, as it opened, with stylish intensity: whatever Cambridge University G&S Society do next will be well worth seeing, just as long as they don’t rush its denser passages.