This is a rare treat for G&S aficionados. It is commonly felt that, after their infamous quarrel over payment for the Savoy Theatre carpet, WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan never completely recovered their sparkle. Of their two subsequent works, Utopia Ltd and The Grand Duke, the latter is most infrequently revived. This is a pity because, while appreciably less popular than their other operettas, there is still much to enjoy, particularly in this lively and animated production.
Although presented as a “concert performance” (which means, in OUGSS parlance, that there is a seated script-in-hand chorus), there is some fantastic acting and hilarious comic “business” between the costumed principals which brings the libretto to life.
And what a bizarre libretto it is, in which the humble sausage roll plays a significant part! As usual, absurd and paradoxical situations are introduced, are accepted by the characters without question, and are played out to their extreme ridiculous logical conclusions. It felt very fitting that the instigator of the strangest scenarios in the plot was played, with great gusto, by a Philosophy lecturer (Jordan Bell).
The plot, in brief: a theatrical troupe conspire to stage a coup. They aim to replace the penny-pinching Grand Duke (his full repellance perfectly and wince-makingly portrayed by Peter Jonas) of the Germanic state of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, with their own theatrical manager. After all, what better qualification for running a government than the experience of managing all those difficult egos and prima donnas in a theatre? However, instead of gunpowder, they use a piece of antique legislation known as the “Statutory Duel” – essentially a winner-takes-all gamble, leaving the loser legally (but not actually) dead and the winner inheriting all his responsibilities … including a succession of unexpected fiancées.
There were some fine performances. Most of the principals were in extremely good voice last night. Peter Sutton, back in Oxford, assumed with customary verve and enthusiasm the role of Ludwig, the comic actor who accidentally ends up in charge, instead of the theatre manager. Verity Ramsden gave a memorable portrayal of Julia, the troupe’s leading lady, with a wonderful range of facial expressions, a clear and powerful voice, and a spell-binding solo piece exhibiting the full range of dramatic talents of a Victorian actress.
Seung-Eon Yoo, a first year student, is to be congratulated on his success in his debut as an OUGSS musical director. Sullivan’s score was skilfully adapted for the unusual ensemble of one violin, one piano and three clarinets - which, to our surprise, worked exceedingly well, and the musicians performed it beautifully, to much deserved applause.
There is only one more chance to experience this unique production. I hope OUGSS will have a full house for it at Corpus Christi College on Friday night.