“I’m a light-hearted girl, but I don’t chaff bogies”
Though Gilbert and Sullivan’s works enjoy enduring popularity across the country, the arbiters of taste seem to have dictated that there is little place for them in London’s theatres. So what we do get are fringe works – often highly inventive as in Sasha Regan’s all-male productions for the Union Theatre – and curiosities, as the Finborough unearths a rarely performed work from the pair, The Grand Duke, as part of their Celebrating British Music Theatre series.
Their final collaborative work, The Grand Duke or The Statutory Duel has languished on the shelves as its comparatively poor reception doomed it to an early closure and a lifetime of obscurity beckoned as the popular perception is that this show is proof positive of their degenerating creative partnership. In some ways, the argument can be made as the dialogue is creaky, the score is oft-times derivative and the hugely convoluted plot is sprawlingly bonkers. But then this is G+S that we’re talking about and to pull at the thread of either the lack of musical variety or straightforwardness of the plot is to call into question their whole oeuvre.
There are recognisable musical elements and stock character types in all of their shows, and their plots are rarely simple (The Mikado anyone?), but what pulls them through is the wit and warmth that imbues their finest moments. And in this madcap tale set in the Grand Duchy of Pfennig-Halbpfennig where a troupe of ambitious actors get embroiled in a political coup with sausage rolls, sets of playing cards and surprise visits from many a suitor, some such moments do emerge as we are whisked along on this giddily whimsical ride.
Perching on the set of the main house production, the already intimate stage of the Finborough is further reduced by the presence of two keyboards, which makes director Martin Milnes’ feat of getting 19 performers on and off and around the stage cleanly and smoothly all the more impressive. That he has recruited such a talented ensemble is also to his credit as it is this quality that makes the show shine and elevates it in many of its weaker moments.
Charlotte Page is simply outrageously fabulous as the leading lady with dreams of becoming a duchess, her not-inconsiderable vocal skills matched with some great comic timing to frequently steal the show; Stefan Bednarczyk’s strangely equivocal leading man (of sorts) is played well, and Richard Suart hams it up magnificently as the titular Grand Duke who finds his position under threat. Around them, a multitude of actors play a multitude of parts that interject at random intervals, but special mention should go to the hard-working group of five who make up the frequently-reappearing supporting chorus.
Undoubtedly there are better G+S musicals but to hark back to them in considering The Grand Duke is to kind of miss the point. As with the other Sunday/Monday shows at the Finborough, this limited engagement is the perfect opportunity for fans to delve into rarely-performed works which have been resuscitated by casts and creatives who are bubbling with enthusiasm and passion. Sometimes gems are unearthed, sometimes the reasons for their obscurity are made evident but crucially, we’re allowed to make up our own minds. For this reviewer, The Grand Duke lay somewhere between these two extremes, but proved to be a highly enjoyable experience with it.