The Chichester Festival Theatre
Review by Emma Shane
© Spring/Summer 2003
I don’t know when such a situation has arisen before of an actor portraying another performer in a biopic and then playing a role originated by that performer upon the stage. (The nearest example I have so far discovered was Julie Andrews playing Gertrude Lawrence in the film Star and then playing Anna in a cast album recording of The King & I, but that was a cast album, not a stage show.) However, this production of The Gondoliers has exactly such an occurrence, as Ms Louise Gold takes the part of The Duchess Of Plaza Toro, a role originated by Miss Rosina Brandram, whom Ms Gold actually portrayed in the film Topsy Turvy.
The show starts with the entry from far stage left (along the auditorium) of the ladies chorus, plus the maidens Gianetta and Tessa, played by Fiona Dunn and Liza Pulman. The girls each pick up bunches of red and white flowers (which are scattered about the stage). Two Gondoliers are planning to get married and are going to choose two of them as brides, List And Learn. While our two maidens perform well, I would also single out Katherine O’Shea as being particularly good in this number, in fact I felt she was almost more like a central character than our two maidens. Then the gentleman’s chorus enters, similarly from far stage right, dressed as Gondoliers, Good Morrow Pretty Maids. This was followed by the entrance of the two brothers who are getting married, Buon’ Giorno Signorine The first few songs seemed to be sung a little operatically, and it began to concern me that the show might be a bit too much ‘Concert English’ for my tastes. The fact that Buon’ Giorno Signorine is not English may have accentuated this concern. However, with the next number, We’re Called Gondolieri, sung our two Gondoliers assuaged that doubt. For although both Joe Shovelton and Jamie Parker, who play the Gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri are fine singers, they thankfully sang clearly and all their lyrics can be heard. The maidens blindfold these two Gondoliers, then all run around as the blindfolded Gondoliers try to catch a maiden each, My Papa. At last Marco catches Gianetta and Giuseppe catches Tessa, and all seem happy with their catches, Thank You Gallant Gondelideri. They dance off, as do the ladies and gentleman’s choruses.
Now onto the next scene, from near stage left, four newcomers enter, and quickly introduce themselves in song, they are: The Duke Of Plaza Toro, His wife The Duchess Of Plaza Toro, their daughter Casilda, and their attendant Luiz; played by Martin Marquez, Louise Gold, Alicia Davies, and, Steven Fawell respectively, From The Sunny Spanish Shore. This is a G&S patter piece. Unfortunately for this production, while in all other respects Louise Gold may be a pretty well suited to playing such a magnificent contralto role, patter songs are not exactly her forte. She tries hard, but to anyone who knows her work, she does not seem at ease, and her diction, often her weakness, is decidedly not at it’s best. I couldn’t help worrying how well this role would really suit her talents. The Duchess shone rather better in the dialog scene that followed, especially when delivering the line “That’s so like a band” (much to the obvious amusement of the band at the back of the stage). But then Louise Gold has a flair for delivering one-liners, with perfect comic timing. Other superbly delivered lines in this dialog scene include the moment when The Duke is deliberating over what to say in his message to The Inquisitor, she yells the right word “Demand” at him. It is perhaps not too surprising that her character gets many of the best lines in this dialog scene. The role was, after all, originated by a Doyly Carte member who got her big break when understudying a singer who was struggling with Gilbert’s dialog in the original production of The Sorcerer. It is noticeable that every time any of them refer to The Inquisitor, all four immediately cross themselves (which looked like something out of Blackadder). The Duke and Duchess reveal to their daughter a secret, when she was a baby she was married to the infant son of the King Of Barataria. As the old King is now dead, they have come to Spain to find her husband (who is missing). Louise, at least, conveys this with a look of warm tenderness. Casilda is surprised, and protests they have no money, this point has not escaped The Duke, he is in the process of forming himself as a limited company ‘The Duke Of Plaza Toro Limited’. Backed by the other three he sings In Enterprise Of Martial Kind. The first time I saw it I thought that although Martin Marquez sings well enough and plays his part reasonably well, throughout much of the scene he is a little overshadowed by The Duchess, though the second time I saw it he seemed to have figured out how not to get overshadowed. By contrast from the word go, Alicia Davies in the role of Casilda seems to be pretty capable of holding her own and not getting overshadowed. It might be mentioned that in the original production these roles were played by Mr Frank Wyatt and Miss Decima Moore respectively, who were both making their Doyly Carte debuts.
The Duke and Duchess depart, briefly, leaving Casilda and Luiz alone. The pair promptly declare their love for each other, O’ Rapture and then after a brief discussion Casilda decides that given her principles this must be the last time they embrace, after all she is married to another, There Was A Time. Luiz, incidentally, knows all about that, not least because his mother was also the infant Prince’s nurse. At this point The Duke and Duchess re-enter along with The Grand Inquisitor himself, Don Alhambra Del Bolero, played by James Saxon. The latter, with the backing of the other four, reveals that he gave the Prince to a Gondolier to bring up, I Stole The Prince. Unfortunately no one knows which boy is that Gondolier’s own son and which The Prince, this state of affairs is presented by Alicia Davies and James Saxon in But Bless My Heart. The Inquisitor has decided he will send Luiz off to fetch his mother, she is sure to be able to identify which is which, and the five of them launch into Try We Life Long. This song is indeed a pudding full of plums, and with those plums at long last we also get a soupcon of that full-bodied burgundy that is The Duchess’s glorious voice. But it is only a soupcon, and having finished the song all five depart the stage.
Now back to the plot with the Gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe and their chosen girls Gianetta and Tessa. The quartet have just got married, and these four, with the ladies and gentleman’s choruses enter, Bridegroom And Bride. Tessa celebrates by singing When A Merry Maiden Marries. Liza Pulman sings her song entirely satisfactorily; she is the kind of singer who seems to be rather good at singing this sort of role sweetly but decently. She was excellent when she played Brenda Blossom five years ago in Hollywood Pinafore. Then The Grand Inquisitor enters, and proceeds to tell The Gondoliers about how one of them, we don’t know which, is the King of Barataria, as they are Gondoliers and therefore republicans heart and soul there is a suggestion they could of course abdicate, but they decide that perhaps they are not altogether insuperable to the ideas of kingship. The Grand Inquisitor has arranged for them to rule jointly, until it is discovered which of them is The King. In the meantime though they may take their friends (fellow Gondoliers) with them and give them places about the court, ladies will not be admitted, at least not at present. Gianetta is appalled at being separated from her newly married husband, Kind Sir, You Cannot Have Heart. Fiona Dunn sings this believably. The Grand Inquisitor comforter her, Do Not Give Way To This Uncalled For Grief, announcing he will send for The King’s Foster Mother, who will be sure to know him. This cheers the two ladies up and with their respective husbands and the chorus they sing Regular Royal Queen. This terrific little piece was really the high spot of Liza Pulman and Fiona Dunn’s performance. They gave it all they could and for the duration of the number one pretty much forgot about the rest of the cast, which is exactly what one should do. Then it is Jamie Parker and Joe Shovelton’s turn with For Everyone Who Feels Inclined to tell us how they intend to conduct their court according to their republican principles, so that everyone about the court “they all shall equal be”. Before they can get too carried away with this idealised reverie, it is up to Fiona Dunn and Liza Pulman to offer a word of warning Now Marco Dear, as Gianetta and Tessa make it clear their husbands must not forget to whom they are married. With that goodbye it is time for the Gondoliers to depart, Away We Go To An Island Fair. This was rousingly performed by the quartet and choruses, and finished with the gentleman’s chorus running off stage through the auditorium, to end the first act.
The Second Act is set three months later, on the island of Barataria. The gentleman’s chorus appear on stage lounging about in a variety of garbs. The Canal of the first act has now been changed into a swimming pool, and one of the gentleman is sitting on a lilo in it. They remark upon their new life, Of Happiness The Very Pith. Just as we are wondering how this state of affairs comes about, our joint monarch’s enter, and proceed to run little errands for their friends, the ministers of state, as they say “The very least we can do is make ourselves useful about the palace”, Rise Early In The Morning. This was particularly well sung by Jamie Parker, admirably backed up by Joe Shovelton and the Gentleman’s chorus. All sing clearly, with more than passable diction. They are happy in their new life, except for one thing, they miss their wives. Joe Shovelton sums this up with Take A Pair Of Sparkling Eyes. Soon their prayers are answered with the entry from far stage right of the ladies chorus, Here We Are, At The Risk Of Our Lives. This too is well sung and acted, I would singly out Jo Nesbit among them for being particularly good in this number. The only thing is we are left wondering is they keep mentioning they’ve brought the Gondoliers’s brides. At last Liza Pulman and Fiona Dunn manage to slink on stage, without one noticing them until they are there, and proceed to lead the female chorus with After Sailing To This Island, as they enquire of their men folk what it is really like. All of them are so happy to be together again they decide to have a banquet and a dance, Dance A Cachucha, this song of course ends with all nine of them dancing a Cachucha. Onto this scene enters The Grand Inquisitor. He is not pleased to find that The Gondoliers have attempted to remodel the court on republican principles, and tells them that it cannot possibly work, There Lived A King. James Saxon sang this quite well, and was admirably backed up by the ever reliable Jamie Parker and Joe Shovelton. He then goes on to explain to them the rather delicate situation of one of them being married to Casilda as a baby. All four of the quartet are both stunned and upset. The Grand Inquisitor departs, to interview the old lady Inez (who has now been found and brought to the palace) in the torture chamber. Meanwhile the quartet try to make sense of their situation, In A Complentative Fashion. This is a very Gilberteque song, and one in which in brings into play his extensive knowledge of mathematics (he had a degree in that subject from Kings College London). In the end they resolve nothing, except that Gianetta and Tessa are determined to do something to Casilda, in their words “No matter, no matter, if I can get at her. I doubt if her mother will know her again.” This last line provoked quite a laugh from the audience. I think part of the reason it registered so strongly was thanks to the very strong stage presonce we had witnessed earlier from the character of Casilda’s mother, The Duchess. A presonce that is apparent even when the character is not actually present. The quartet depart still pondering the situation.
Now the Gentlemen’s chorus return, escorting with them The Duke and Duchess Of Plaza Toro and Casilda, With Ducal Pomp And Ducal Pride. This song has a chorus sung by the gentlemen and a verse sung by The Duke and Duchess. Louise Gold and Martin Manquez sing pleasingly with conviction. The Duke sends the attendants to “inform his majesty that his grace begs” “Desires” suggests Casilda “Demands” barks The Duchess, “an audience” The Gentleman’s chorus depart, leaving Casilda alone with her parents. She is not happy about their being too gentlemen, however the Duke tells her she will find they will boil down to a single gentleman. The Duchess, who is something of an old battleaxe, takes an opportunity of chiding The Duke. Casilda is still doubtful, she says she will be a dutiful wife, but can never love her husband. Her parents while appearing to be understanding, are sure it is possible, after all they did it, as The Duchess says (and how wonderfully Louise delivers this line) “It was very difficult my dear, but I said to myself , ‘That man is a Duke, and I will love him.’ Several of my relations bet me I couldn’t, but I did - desperately.”
The Duchess proceeds to explain this further in song, On The Day When I Was Wedded. Now at last Louise Gold’s glorious voice rolls out as full bodied burgundy rolls down. Prior to this number she had seemed at times to be a little subdued, and relying on her acting skills to get her performance across. Now at last we get to see what she can do. Her magnificent performance is ecstatic, emphatic and sincere all at once. Yet her performance also includes some of her more unusual defiant traits, and I was not entirely sure whether that was wise. One of Louise Gold’s little tricks is to sing emphases in songs very very subtlety. More often than not she under-emphasises the parts of a song that would normally be emphasised. While this does breath new life into an old song, there is always a danger that if she does it too subtly the audience will have difficulty ‘getting it’, especially if they are unfamiliar with the song. That said she is a remarkably clever sophisticated singer, and really the only thing required is that the audience pay proper attention to her performance, if they do, then ‘getting it’ is by no means an insurmountable problem. So with double-shotted guns and colours nailed to the mast, she quite simply tames this not insignificant song at last.
It is hard to follow a showstopper, especially a solo showstopper, it would have been highly ill advisable to send another principal out of stage immediately after that, and wisely what follows it is a duet, moreover a duet involving the very lady who has just stunned everyone with that solo. Moving on with the plot Casilda is still obviously unhappy about her marriage, and hopes that when her husband see what a shady family he has married into he will repudiate the contract. Her parents by contrast, like many a modern celebrity, seem to revel in their shadiness, as they promptly explain in Small Titles And Orders. This is one of W. S. Gilbert’s most extraordinarily perceptive lyrics. A lyric moreover which even to modern ears sounds incredibly contemporary, dealing as it does with famous people (in this case a Duke and Duchess) using their position to make some money by: Being guest speakers at charity dinners, launching ladies of doubtful proprietary into society, obtaining honours for MP’s and other second rate personages, taking directorships of companies, and recommending various firms and products, and so on. This production also includes an extra verse by Alistair Beaton (a former lyricist on: The Ratepayer’s Iolanthe, The Metropolitan Mikado and Spitting Image amongst other things). The additional verse was clearly recognisable, simply through it’s references to: Skiing, Chris Tarrent, and New Labour amongst other latter-day references, but it did fit in rather well. However, it is not just the wonderful lyrics that made this song memorable. When it comes to performance you cannot do better than trot out Martin Manquez and Louise Gold as a Duke and a Duchess, they were superb. I particularly liked Ms Gold’s miming, for with her clever expressive hands she is rather good at miming. The actions seemed to vary a little between the two performances, with more explicit miming about dress makers and writing letters the first time round (of course being a lefthander herself, she mimes these things left-handed). Martin Manquez too acquitted himself extremely well in this number. In fact I felt it was one of his most memorable performances in the entire show, even if he got a little overshadowed, but that is only to be expected when Louise Gold is a duetist in a number like this. And even then he was less overshadowed the second time, when he seemed to have got the measure of his glorious co-star. In a number of G&S plays a certain emphasis seems to be placed on people being born to their position in life, well if people are born to fulfil some place in society, then Louise Gold is undoubtedly a born Political Satirist (her parent’s were Unity Theatre players after all), so it is very fitting that she, The Doyenne of Spitting Image puppeteers, gets to perform this song. It might also be remembered that in the only proper production of a G&S Operetta that Louise Gold has been in prior to this, The Pirates Of Penzance at Drury Lane, she managed to end up waltzing round the stage with a real nobleman, Timothy Bentinck). Anyway Small Titles And Orders is a number that really sums up the whole production. This is not a staid ‘traditional’ ‘Doyly Carte’ production, but a fresh vibrant modern production, where the emphasis is firstly on acting and secondly on singing. Yet in a way such an approach may actually take us back to what these operettas might have been like when first performed, at least according to the film Topsy Turvy many of the original Doyly Carte company were actors first and singers second, too. To my mind one of the most memorable moments in the song is when The Duchess sings “And vow my complexion, derives it’s perfection, from somebody’s soap which it doesn’t.” whereupon the Duke adds ‘significantly’ “It certainly doesn’t.” From discussing this with various online G&S fanatics, I have come to the conclusion that, besides being a reference to a soap advertisement of the period, this is a joke with several layers to it. Firstly The Duchess would never use the soap in question anyway, secondly she is an old battle-axe who thinks that her complexion is already perfect without the aid of somebody’s soap. The Duke however reckons that The Duchess’s complexion is so far from perfect even somebody’s soap would have no effect on it. In this production, however, a further layer was provided to the joke, by having The Duchess played by an actress who is actually rather beautiful, namely Louise Gold. This last joke seems to be entirely in keeping with the original production where the role was played by an actress whom W. S. Gilbert himself described as “Rosina, whose dismal doom it was to represent undesirable old ladies of sixty-five, but who, with all the resources of the perruquier and the make-up box, could never succeed in looking more than an attractive eight-and-twenty—it was her only failure.”
If On The Day When I Was Wedded had been a hard act to follow, such a showstopper as Small Titles And Orders must be even harder to follow. No doubt such an experienced librettist as Gilbert would have been aware of this problem, for he keeps The Duke, The Duchess, and Casilda on stage, and now brings on the two Gondoliers. Needless to say both The Duke and Duchess are pretty appalled by their lack of appropriate politeness, and promptly set about trying to teach these two Gondoliers how they ought to behave at Court, I Am A Courtier Grave And Serious. This number consists of The Duke observing and instructing, while The Duchess and Casilda each take one of the Gondoliers (who are seated on their thrones) in hand and try to push and pull them into appropriate positions. They also dance, and at this point Louise Gold twirled the long skirt of her Spanish-style dress so much that at times her shapely legs are quite noticeable. At last they seem to catch it nicely, at which point The Duke and Duchess depart, leaving Casilda alone with the two Gondoliers.
It is apparent to all three why they have been left alone, Casilda confides in them that she loves another, at this point Tessa and Gianetta enter and it is explained to Casilda that The Gondoliers have married these girls. All are unhappy at the awkward situation, Here Is A Case Unprecedented. They perform well, but after The Duchess’s tour de force the number though good at the time does not exactly stick in ones memory, though Alicia Davies at least, does her best to try and make it go down well.
Now everyone one else: The Grand Inquisitor, The Duke, The Duchess, and The Chorus enter for the finale, Now Let The Loyal Lieges Gather Round. Then on hobbles Inez, the Prince’s Foster Mother, played rather well by Nicola Slone (who apparently played the role once before some years ago in a production of The Gondoliers at The Bristol Old Vic). Now it is time for the revelation, The Royal Prince Was By The King Entrusted. Inez reveals that many years ago she swapped her own son with The Prince. He was then taken to The Gondolier, and she brought The Prince up as her own. He is none other than The Duke and Duchess’s attendant Luiz. Casilda’s “pure and patient love is now rewarded”, and all three couples have their rightful partners. The cast sing the finale while dancing on the stage. My eyes wandered over to The Duke and Duchess who were dancing as enthusiastically as any of them, they finished up with The Duke getting his 5ft9” Duchess in a backbend!
All in all this is a terrifically vibrant energetic production of The Gondoliers. The liveliness comes from many corners, The performers themselves, Richard Balcombe’s musical direction, and, Jonathan Lunn’s choreography. The latter is very well suited to both the 1950’s style costumes, and the cast. Besides a fair amount of kicking of skirts, everyone makes a lot of use of hand-gestures. My favourite of these is Louise Gold, as The Duchess, indicating the word “Limited”, by miming a name-plate or some such. In general the cast sing G&S the way I like to hear it sung, not to operatically. The entire chorus: Julie Barens, Deborah Crowe, Sasha Oakley, Nicola Sloane, Natasha Bain, Katherine O’Shea, Jo Nesbit, Steve Elias, Trevor Connor, Adam Tedder, Christian Patterson, Benedict Quirke, Kieran Hill, and, Neil McDermott all perform well. Besides singing they dance nicely and act their songs. Their chorus is a lively one (a bit like Papp’s Pirates Of Penzance chorus was). Perhaps in keeping with the gondoliers’s republican principles this is a production with very few star names, and those actors who do have some notability (such as: the National Theatre’s Anything Goes Gangster, The West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Violet, the juvenile lead of a recent Doyly Carte revival of HMS Pinafore, and the doyenne of Spitting Image puppeteers) perform as equals with everyone else. In the title roles Joe Shovelton and Jamie Parker are amongst the best performers in the production. They sing and clearly, dance excellently, and deliver their lines well. I’d like to see both of them again. Meanwhile what of their supporting players? James Saxon manages to mix comedy and villainy in just about the right amounts for his role. As Tessa and Gianetta, Liza Pulman and Fiona Dunn played their parts well. Though Ms Dunn was clearly a 1950’s maiden, with a tendency to lifting the hem of her dress up so much the audience could see her knickers. Meanwhile Ms Pulman had about as much impact on the show as she did when she played Phil Ruxton in Oh Kay. She was there, but a bit overshadowed. Even more prone to getting overshadowed though was Martin Manquez. Though he was much less overshadowed later in the run (one might conclude that it just took him a little time to learn how to act opposite his Duchess). He actually played The Duke very well, and in a way his getting somewhat overshadowed by his co-star could became a part of his character, The Duchess does rather dominate her husband. One of the best performances in the show is that of Alicia Davies as Casilda. She is a jolly good little actress, with quite a lot of stage presonce. She is just the kind of performer I really like to see onstage with Louise Gold, because she isn’t in the least fazed by Ms Gold’s acting style. And what of The Duchess Of Plaza Toro herself? With such songs as On The Day When I Was Wedded and Small Titles And Orders to sing this is a role that demands to be sung by “a lyric artiste of no ordinary excellence”. The indefatigable Louise Gold meets this demand admirably. She’s got a great costume, some good lines, and two spectacular numbers. I worried at first whether her part would be appropriate and worthy of her talents; from the first act alone it seemed a little doubtful. It also seemed a little doubtful (especially the second time I saw the show) whether she was actually going to be on tip top form (Louise Gold always gives a good performance, however in the first act this usually irrepressible creature seemed, for her, rather subdued). But in the second act she emerges as a real star of the show. Perhaps that was actually wise libretti writing on Gilbert’s part. The role after all was originally played by Rosina Brandram, the actress who appeared in more original G&S productions than anyone else. Looking at the cast list for the original production I could find few names of really notable Doyly Carte members (in fact the only ones I spotted were Rutland Barrington as Guiseppe, Jessie Bond as Tessa, Rosina Brandram as The Duchess of Plaza Toro and possibly Courtice Pounds as Marco). So could it be that Gilbert deliberately positioned such an experienced performer’s big numbers at a point in the show after less experienced members of the company had made their mark, so they wouldn’t have to try to follow her? If so, Louise Gold proves to be a performer well suited to having these numbers so positioned. It seems appropriate that having portrayed Miss Brandram on the screen, Ms Gold has been given an opportunity to play one of Miss Brandram’s original roles. In Act 2 , at least, she rises admirably to the challenge with double-shotted guns and colours nailed to the mast, and makes the role her own, at last.
Webmaster’s Footnote: Unfortunately during the run of the production James Saxon (who played the role of Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor) was taken ill, and died suddenly on 2 July 2003. The author of this review would like to respectfully express sympathy to all the people at The Chichester Festival Theatre involved with the production at such a sad time.