Mary Woodward Review

Sullivan Utopia Limited, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

“What a delightful surprise!”  

**** (4 stars)

Having known of Utopia, Limited all my life, I had (a) never seen it nor [I thought] heard a note of it and (b) understood it to be a poor relation of the well-known and well-loved staples of the G&S canon.  I couldn’t have been more wrong on both counts!

Written some years after the success of The Gondoliers, and when relations between composer and librettist were soured by the Great Carpet Argument, Utopia, Limited may be set in some remote idyllic tropical island, but the whole piece is a raging satire on the British government of the time which proves uncannily apposite and trenchant today.

Utopia is a paradise whose inhabitants sing of their life “in lazy languor, motionless”.  The only fly in the ointment, from the point of view of their king, Paramount, is that he is controlled by Phantis and Scaphio, judges of the Utopian Supreme Court.  He tries to find the humour in every aspect of his situation, but that’s hard when he is prevented from marrying the Lady Sophy, his daughters’ governess.  She loves him, but won’t marry him because she believes the scandalous reports of the king’s conduct that appear in The Palace Peeper newspaper – not knowing that the king writes these himself.

Paramount’s eldest daughter, Zara, returns from five years at Girton College, Cambridge, bringing with her Captain Fitzbattleaxe and five other ‘Flowers of Progess’ who display, she announces, all the qualities which make England a powerful and happy country.  At her behest, and against the wishes of Phantis and Scaphio, the king declares his country a limited company which will be run by the Flowers of Progress.

Phantis and Scaphio are appalled at their loss of power, and plot in a dastardly manner to regain it.  Captain Fitzbattleaxe and Zara declare their love; the king’s younger daughters, Nekaya and Kalyba, are taught how to behave like ‘proper English ladies’, and King Paramount is able finally to reveal to Lady Sophy the truth about The Palace Peeper.  All seems set for a happy ending, when Phantis and Scaphio incite a rebellion among the Utopian people.  Zara defuses the situation by singing of the most vital element of the success of the English system, and everyone rejoices that a LIMITED monarchy has been restored.

There was a lot of wry laughter throughout the show – many very telling criticisms of the current Westminster government were highlighted in a most accurate and entertaining fashion.  I noticed yet again the confusion of ‘English’ and ‘British’ which still dogs us today whenever greatness is being discussed… Zara’s final aria described England/Britain as a tiny nation that is the terror of the world [sound familiar, anyone?] but added let us hope that she makes no mistakes and she’s all she professes to be – a sentiment many people in the currently united kingdom would wish the Westminster government would take to heart and embody.

The semi-staged production was simple but effective.  Using the chequered floor and tropical backdrop from the Gondoliers, a few chairs and a faintly regal throne were moved around to provide a variety of settings.  The chorus members were in black and the principals in mostly simple costumes which illustrated their status – some lovely frocks for the ladies, ultra-smooth white jackets for the two conspirators, and a striking military uniform for the King in act 2.

The music was most definitely not a second-rate, pallid imitation of what Sullivan had produced in previous Savoy operas, nor was it all completely new.  There were a number of musical references to previous works, while Captain Fitzbattleaxe’s despairing aria as he tries to express his feelings for Princess Zara – a tenor can’t do himself justice– is one I’ve long known. Utopia, Limited contains so many entertaining, moving, witty, technically brilliant numbers that it’s an enormous pity it’s been neglected.  The massive ensemble at the end of act 1 was most impressive; the septet for King, Flowers of Progress and tambourines was snappily done; the a capella ensemble in act 2 was beautifully sung and kept perfectly in tune; the plotters’ plotting was suitably diabolical; and, and, and…  The witty patter songs might not have been so appreciated without the aid of supertitles [alas] but the music needed no assistance and sparkled along under the baton of Derek Clark, Scottish Opera’s head of music.

The cast who’d delighted us in the Gondoliers gave us another display of their considerable talents.  Ben McAteer as King Paramount gave us yet another of his wonderfully comic and beautifully sung characters, and Yvonne Howard was an impressively restrained yet commanding Lady Sophy.  Mark Nathan and William Morgan, last week’s gondoliers, had another chance to shine today.  Mark’s cheeky chappie/ wise guy Mr Goldbury, a Company Promoter, not only cantered ably through an explanation of fiscal policy and limited companies [it sounds dishonest but if England do it, it must be okay] but also charmingly explained to the younger princesses that English ladies’ behaviour is not always prim and proper.  William Morgan’s Captain Battleaxe did a splendid job of cracking on his high notes when explaining to Zara [quite accurately] how overflowing emotions drastically affect the singing voice, and was a strong and gallant leader of the First Life Guards who protected his princess at Girton. 

Ellie Laugharne successfully convinced her audience that a Cambridge education gave her unparalleled insights into the immense superiority of England – no mean feat, that! – while her younger sisters [Catriona Hewitson and Sioned Gwen Davies] giggled and simpered and behaved impeccably till given licence to relax their oppressively proper behaviour.  Richard Suart and Arthur Bruce were excellent conspirators with a deft line both in patter and footwork, with the younger man learning a lot from the wily old hand but also able to come up with ingenious suggestions of his own.  The minor characters were also impeccably played and sung, making the most of their brief cameos and adding further depth and convolutions to the plot.

In short, having gone to the Festival Theatre curious, but not expecting too much, I was once again won over completely by Scottish Opera’s wholehearted and engaging enthusiasm for this sadly overlooked work.  It had one performance in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh: you could catch it in London next April, but apart from that you’ll have to wait and hope that Utopia, Limited doesn’t go back into the darkness but is revived and given the attention it deserves.

Scottish Opera Presents, Gilbert & Sullivan Utopia Limited, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Run ended. The Production will play Hackney Empire, London 1st April 2022.

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