It may have proved a risk to choose such a well known production, albeit an operetta, created by the legendary Gilbert and Sullivan, but this is Illyria.
They have proved over their 26 year history, that they can take a story and transform it with a relentless energy and vibrancy that I’ve yet to see in any other touring Theatre Company. This production was no exception.
One of the biggest outdoor theatre companies, Illyria are known for their lively, fun and family orientated productions, and have covered an impressive catalogue of material, from Shakespeare plays, to period dramas and childhood classics such as Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World .
There is everything that you would expect. The bold and ridiculous characters, the familiar musical score and the themes of romance and family connection, with the added iconic Illyria twist. Men dress as women, actors hide in plain sight, props and special effects are hilariously improvised.
The packed out Castle grounds were cheering and clapping with delight, and that was just the adults.
The cast worked well with the set design, which as expected for a touring Theatre company, was pretty basic, keeping the emphasis on the performance. The red helm of a ship, complete with ships wheel was elevated on the stage, later replaced with a rowing boat, which was cleverly rocked from side to side by the actors. The setting of the castle, high above the surrounding river Teifi lent itself well to the production, adding to the atmosphere as the wind came up throughout the performance.
In the second act, two blue archways served as the background for the Major Generals home. The tiered stage always works well, especially with a full audience.
The play begins with the legendary pirate king (played with great enthusiasm by Samuel Wright) at the helm of his boat, joined by his fellow pirates, to congratulate the apprentice pirate Frederic on his 21stBirthday. Believing he is free to leave and pursue other ventures (mainly a woman prettier than his nurse maid, Ruth, played to great comic effect by Illyria regular Stephanie Lyse) Frederic meets the Major General’s daughter and falls in love with her. Yet it then transpires that he was born on a leap year and he must serve with the Pirates for another 63 years. What ensues is a comical tale of missed opportunities, hide and seek, and the quest to fulfil ones duty, while gaining justice against the lawbreaking pirates.
Some familiar faces continue to shine in their roles. Samuel Wright is a perfect fit as the brutish Pirate King, who runs the ship, belting out songs at the helm of the boat, while waving a pirate flag across the stage. He adds a ridiculous and camp element to the character when skipping and dancing across the stage with his crew. Later we see him, in what appears to be a regular role for him with Illyria, as one of the young girls who catches the eye of Frederic. As he dances and sings with the other women, in 19thcentury dress complete with bustle, fluttering his eyelashes and holding a fan to his face, he draws laughs from the audience, adding to the humour of the story.
Newcomer Matthew James Willis is impressive as Pirate Apprentice, Frederic. Showcasing a strong voice, he moves about the stage with an energy and charisma which proves his worth in the lead role. His comic connection with Ruth, is a pleasure to watch, as is his romantic chemistry with Mabel (played by Jenny Cullen). In one of the early scenes of the play, when Frederic and Ruth leave the pirates, and Frederic begins to suspect Ruth has fooled him into thinking she’s beautiful, Ruth, life ring around her waist, mock swims after being pushed from the boat, water flying from back stage to emphasise her fall. The comic timing here is excellent.
The director (Oliver Gray) works well to get the balance right. In the scenes where Mabel sings to Frederic, which seemed to go on a long time, laughs were provided through various improvisations, such as a blast of steam coming out of the girls’ ears, and the small framed Frederic being lifted into the air like a bird by the power of Mabel’s voice.
The Major General (Alex Weatherhill) deserves special mention, for his recreation of the infamous ‘Modern Major General’ song alone. After the first verse he hilariously pauses, taking a big breath to indicate the toll of his duty. He first appears from the back of the stage in full red uniform, his voice pompous and stature upright. We later see him claiming he’s an orphan boy to save his daughters from the pirates, then dressed in a Wee Willy Winky style sleepwear as he goes into his grounds to check for intruders.
A few of the minor characters also double up as the line up of policemen (led by the brilliantly funny Rachel Lea-Gray) who come to arrest the Pirates. Dressed in bright blue fancy dress style uniforms, the sergeant in yellow with novelty glasses and moustache, they draw laughs immediately. Then they launch into the song ‘A policeman’s life is not a happy lot’ complete with bobbing up and down at first in unison, then alternating. Later, the absurdity is accelerated with the crash of symbols and drums as the sergeant approaches the pirates.
An appearance by the Bishop of Penzance and a rather masculine Queen Victoria, as well as Death, in black cloak and scythe adds to the surreal and ridiculous nature of the play.
Yet the original messages are still there, the comments on the corruption of politicians and the effects of royalty on lawbreakers, as well as the detrimental propaganda sending young men cheerfully off to war. They are presented in satire, and highlighted with great skill by Director, Gray. Mention should also be made to Musical Director Richard Healey and Musical Arranger Jane Marlow, who endeavour to keep Sullivan’s original musical score, aside from a few notes, entirely unchanged.
The audience weren’t as involved as with previous Illyria productions, yet this may have been to do with the choice of production. To audience delight, the characters were roaming the audience both before the production and during the interval. At one point, The Pirate King, paused at the beginning of a song to mock question the key the piano was in. He also suggested, after the Major General completed his authentic song, that the audience wanted it to be done faster. To which a big cheer moved over the crowd like a Mexican wave. At the end of the performance, when one of the actors asked the audience who they were, a number of people shouted back ‘Illyria’ proving the worldwide popularity of the Theatre Group.
Illyria are always a pleasure to watch on stage, their energy and enthusiasm is infectious, their productions original and authentic, adding something special that the viewer can never quite put their finger on. The team work so well together, creating something fun and long-lasting for all audiences.
By taking on a Gilbert and Sullivan Classic, they have proven their range of capabilities, their talent for recreating big theatre, showcasing the quality of their acting, singing and theatre production.
Illyria return to Cardigan Castle with The Hound of the Baskervilles on 7thAugust.
They are touring the UK throughout 2018.