Good things come to he who waits...
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Did you hear the one about the 20 love sick maidens? No, neither had we until we saw the latest in the Union Theatre’s all-male Gilbert and Sullivans, Patience. No more the province of middle aged Am Dram groups, director Sasha Regan reclaims G&S for the twenty-first century – a camp riot of fellas in frocks.
Originally performed in 1881, Patience is a satire on the aesthete movement, a time when men had long hair and wrote poetry. Patience, a milkmaid, is loved by two rival aesthetes, winsome Bunthorne (based on Oscar Wilde) and dashing Grosvenor. Careering between the two, Patience, who believes love to be a duty, not a pleasure, cannot choose, and while she dithers, her rival maidens try and pick up her sloppy seconds. Add a useless band of dragoons into the mix (who are rivalling the aesthetes for the girls’ attentions) and only hilarity can ensue.
Regan transposes the actions to an idlyllic English summer sometime in the 1930s. Kingsley Hall’s design gives us an impressionistic space with a suitably aesthetic tree and the same elegant simplicity in the costume design, with floral frocks for the ladies, and some lovely flowing shirt acting from the men. Drew McOnie’s choreography and movement work, reminiscent of the work of Matthew Bourne and Steven Mears on Mary Poppins, is precise and angular, and executed by a company with a strong physical sensibility.
Bearing a passing resemblance to the love child of the Famous Five, Edward Charles Bernstone sings Patience beautifully, but seems almost too feminine in an all-male company while Dominic Brewer’s Bunthorne has a suitably wan charm. It’s not hard to see why the girls (and several of the boys) would be captivated by Stiofàn O’Doherty’s strapping Archibald, long of limb with a rich, roof-shakingly masculine tone to his voice. James Lacey and Mark Gillon are a fine double act as practical Angela and waspish Safir respectively and Sean Quigley plays dutiful but plain Jane’s doting with feeling and nervous charm. Edward Simpson triumphs as bumbling Colonel Calverly, relishing both the patter songs and the mock-aesthetic languor of ‘It’s clear that medieval art’.
The big question, though, is why this show is given the all-male treatment. In Regan’s previous productions the cross dressed cast emphasised the posturing masculinity of the pirates, sailors and lords but here it misses a trick in prioritising a production aesthetic over serving the story. In a show with a strong female chorus who lust after men who, shall we say, seem to be a little light in the loafers, the authentic, emotional pain (which should pierce the comedy) is sadly lacking.
The solution seems to me that, if the trick is to be played at all, an all-female production should be on the cards. Maybe one day. After all, patience is a virtue.
Patience is at the Union Theatre, Southwark, London until 10 March.
Words: Dan Usztan