“A man is most successful when he knows the extent of his limitations”
Gilbert & Sullivan: All At Sixes And Sevens is a new play taking the late slot at London’s Little Opera House, aka the King’s Head. It is a rather odd set-up in which W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan meet up in Heaven, in the modern day, still estranged, to reflect on their often tempestuous creative partnership. This they do by recounting old stories and anecdotes, illustrated by snippets from a large range of songs from their repertoire, including Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore, The Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Mikado, Princessa Ida, Utopia Limited, Ruddigore, and The Grand Duke.
Rather surprisingly, it worked extremely well as a charming form of both tribute and biography, looking back at how they worked as a team, the things that drew them together, the conflicts that pulled them apart and the suggestions of how they actually felt about each other. And the way in which the music was integrated, random lines, verses or even more of songs which illustrated the point they were making was often beautifully done. It was perhaps less successful when it strayed into the more surreal comedy around being in Heaven and getting a little self-referential, it wasn’t quite as clever as it thought it was and to be honest, it didn’t need to stray down this path.
Kevin West’s twinkle-toed and twinkle-eyed Gilbert was my favourite of the two actors, playing the grudging curmudgeon well as the grumpier of the pair, the one less willing, at least initially, to forgive the past as he detailed the slights which had obviously kept him in bad humour. He did much of the heavy lifting with the singing too, rolling out more than one of the infamous patter songs with great confidence and a winning manner. Colin Baldy as Sullivan though was also goo, impressing with accomplished accompaniment from the piano as well as singing, though he was slightly less appealing as the seemingly needier of the pair, always the one pushing for more of everything.
I suspect that this will really only appeal to Gilbert & Sullivan fans: its format rewards those with a little knowledge of the music already, without that it is just a story being told with some random lines from some random songs thrown in for good measure. But with the Union’s all-male Iolanthe soon to be revived at Wilton’s Music Hall, HMS Pinafore to open as a main show here at the King’s Head and the ENO’s Mikado just opening, this provides a nice opportunity to see some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s work at a different slant, lightly enhanced with biographical touches and a genuine warmth for its subjects.
NB: It was only my second show at the King’s Head since its reinvention and it just happened to be a late one again, but I do wonder how sustainable this current run of programming is. Both 10pm shows I have attended have been very sparsely attended indeed and although this one was early in the run, it was a real shame to see it play to so few: perhaps they should limit it to fewer shows a week?
Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free cast sheet available
Booking until 19th March