A classic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the King’s Theatre production of ‘Ruddygore’ was lively, enchanting, and gloriously absurd. Set in a whimsical world in which you can hire professional bridesmaids and men can be cursed by paintings, it’s a well-executed rendition of the original Sullivan score, alongside Gilbert’s artful libretto.
The play opens on a set that looks almost like a Punch and Judy puppet show, with the young Rose Maybud (Gillian Robertson) pining for Robin Oakapple (Ian Lawson), who turns out to be a baronet cursed to commit a crime a day for the rest of his life. Hilarity and drama ensue, keeping the audience on their toes. Sullivan’s music marries well with the dialogue, mixing the operatic with comedy, and creating that air of self-mocking pantomime that so often accompanies Gilbert and Sullivan plays. The characters are endearing in their silliness, over-exaggerating every trope of the opera to the point of farce.
Notable performances include that of Gillian Robertson, whose character is so dedicated to following the rules of a book of etiquette that she becomes erratic. The way she swings from Robin to Richard Dauntless (Chris Cotter) is both hilarious and slightly worrying – she seems to go after whoever is standing closest to her. Simon Boothroyd as Sir Despard shows a depth of character rarely explored in the stereotypical villain. His transition from the frightening baronet to the dispassionate public servant complements Robin’s transformation into the treacherous Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd.
It’s a play for all ages, mixing tongue-in-cheek comments on Brexit with visual gags like handing out half-eaten apples as an act of charity. It’s also a good introduction to the genre of opera, easing newcomers into it. As it’s not a full-blown opera, it’s not too overwhelming, but the music is reminiscent of arias, and the play includes elements of the wider genre. The plot is easy to follow, so even if the singing can be hard to discern, the dialogue catches the audience up very quickly.
It isn’t a play for those without a sense of humour, however, as the over-the-top comedy can be a little hard to swallow. The play’s eagerness to exaggerate theatrical conventions could become somewhat grating. On top of that, the final pairings-up between bridesmaids and ghosts could be dismissed as a convenient plot device to make sure no one is left behind.
While the cast had strong voices, they tended to be overshadowed by Robertson’s incredibly strong soprano. Interestingly, the singing and dancing was not set apart from the plot. Many musicals use singing as an accessory to the acting, and do not recognise that it happened. Refreshingly, the characters take their musical tendencies in stride – indeed they’re almost called mad for doing it.
One of the play’s strengths was its manipulation of image. Every character that is supposedly menacing is revealed to be kind at heart, emphasising that the power of a character is in their reputation. Despite their criminal ways, the Murgatroyd ghosts are harmless and almost laughable; their fearsome punishments to Robin are completely underwhelming.
The darker themes of the play are masked in its absurdity, making the audience laugh while also making us think. It’s perhaps a reach to say it offers commentary on the nature of good or evil, but it does make the audience question whether it is indeed possible to forge one’s own will. It makes for a light-hearted evening, and if you are unfamiliar with Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, this is a great place to start. The determination of directors Alan Borthwick and David Lyle to stay true to the original score, and the colourful and lively portrayals of life in Ruddygore, create a vibrant world that enchants the audience and whisks them away.
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