The Yeomen of the Guard: a touching tribute to G&S’s marvellous marriage of words and music

·3-min read
The Yeoman of the Guard at The Grange Festival - Simon Annand
The Yeoman of the Guard at The Grange Festival - Simon Annand

Forever branded as Gilbert and Sullivan’s one “serious” opera, The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) is actually a skilful mix of comedy, whimsy, sentimentality and (possibly) tragedy, based around the impending execution of Colonel Fairfax at the Tower of London, and the arrival of the travelling players Jack Point and Elsie Maynard.

The essence of the typically Gilbertian story is that Fairfax needs to protect his inheritance by marrying before he is executed: Elsie looks like the ideal target. But there is then a saga of escape and swapped identity, plus the revelation of Jack’s yearning love for Elsie, all clothed in some of Sullivan’s most touching music.

By updating the piece from the 16th century to just after the First World War, this neat new production for the Grange Festival by Christopher Luscombe gets round one of the more problematical elements of the opera, changing the gruesome spectacle of a possible beheading into a potential hanging. This is conveniently less bloodthirsty, but requires some deft alterations to Gilbert’s rhyming couplets.

Simon Higlett’s delightful designs also contribute to lightening the mood, as they feature not the usual dark looming Tower, but a cluster of busy domestic houses around the green from which the chorus emerges. The counterpoint between the local ladies and the Yeomens’ marching song is just one of the many sophisticated touches in the score which John Andrews’s sprightly conducting brings to life with the sonorous Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Sullivan’s skill is to echo the masters – even in the overture, we half-hear Schubert and Mendelssohn – while remaining wholly individual. There are memorable ballads, of which the two for Fairfax are sung here by Nick Pritchard with just the right ringing sincerity. The most subtle of the songs is for Phoebe, the daughter of the Tower’s Sergeant Meryll, as she taunts the head jailer in “Were I thy bride”, its magical orchestration and modulations surely paying a tribute to Mozart. Angela Simkin delivers it charmingly, though elsewhere slightly swallows her cockney words. The object of her lack of affection, Wilfrid Shadbolt, incisively sung by Nicholas Crawley, is the benefit of the decision to restore a couple of cuts in the score, and here acquires an extra aria.

Angela Simkin (as Phoebe Meryll), Nick Pritchard (Colonel Fairfax) and Ellie Laugharne (Elsie Maynard) in The Yeoman of the Guard at The Grange Festival - Simon Annand
Angela Simkin (as Phoebe Meryll), Nick Pritchard (Colonel Fairfax) and Ellie Laugharne (Elsie Maynard) in The Yeoman of the Guard at The Grange Festival - Simon Annand

Elsie, the innocent player swept into the plot, sung with great aplomb by Ellie Laugharne, is heartbreaking as she enters into the blind marriage with a passionate “’Tis done, I am a bride”: she is the most operatic character, but the well-chosen voices here do not ape grand opera but remain intimate and focused.

The complications that ensue involve the escape of Fairfax, pretending to be Phoebe’s brother Leonard returning from the war. For the ensembles, Sullivan creates skating orchestral textures under Gilbert’s sharp rhymes (“Phoebe …who the deuce may she be?”). The characters around the Tower include Heather Shipp’s ripe Dame Carruthers, forever in love with Graeme Broadbent’s lugubrious Sergeant Meryll. The G&S specialist John Savournin is an authoritative Lieutenant.

The denouement revolves around Elsie realising that Fairfax, now pardoned, is in fact the person she has fallen in love with (disguised as Leonard). This, however, leaves her comic partner Jack totally bereft; Nick Haverson creates a larger-than-life cheeky chappie from the East End, much funnier physically than in his stilted dialogue; he sings with rasping, edgy clarity. At the close, this production opts for tragedy in a telling final tableau.

There are not as yet quite enough laughs in the comic moments; but this revival shows how to revive G&S today, updated with a light touch that allows the simple emotions to blossom in this supremely effective music.

In rep until July 8; festival runs until July 14; thegrangefestival.co.uk

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting