March 12, 2012

Patience, Union Theatre

5 stars

Patience cast

I’m rather glad that I hadn’t been studious enough to read the (not-so) small print on the advert for Sasha Regan’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the Union Theatre. You can imagine my surprise then when twenty lovesick maidens came on in tea dresses with hairy legs, chests, shadows of facial hair, and some noticeable bald patches. After getting over my initial shock, I realised quite soon that – in more ways than the obvious – this production was something special.

The young men, mostly in their twenties, were comfortably singing the soprano line of the score as they wafted about the stage, often in sync, emotionally wound up, but physically wilting on account of their mutual love for the Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne (a comic and obstinate Dominic Brewer). Soon, Bunthorne and his sublimely prosaic poetry are ditched in favour of a newcomer in the ladies’ midst – the narcissistic beauty Archiblad Grosvenor. The milkmaid, Patience (Edward Charles Bernstone) – new to love and all that accompanies it – understands that the act of love must be one of self-sacrifice and so, with both men adoring her equally, she must choose the least desirable one (though this proves more complex than anticipated).

Bernstone as Patience is wholly engaging. With a sweep of thick blonde hair, piercing, enquiring eyes, and tanned, sculpted limbs, he captures the unintentional tease about this milkmaid, who – in trying to be self-sacrificial – becomes entirely self-obsessed. Bernstone perfectly mimics the verbal inflections of the era with exclamations such as, “Oh, horror!” containing both a clipped formality and a sadness that seems to hang over her as a woman and therefore with relatively little free will.

There is a bold and brilliant performance from Sean Quigley as Lady Gray, who pursues Bunthorne relentlessly, but cannot deny that she is losing her figure and her youthful looks. Once again, this actor seems to capture both the superficial humour of the character’s bitchiness, but also portrays a more deep-seated tragedy about this woman in grey calf-length socks and a shapeless frock who is desperate to love and be loved.

What I responded to so acutely in Sasha Regan’s production was the fact that it was not a piss-take. While extremely funny, it was never self-consciously so, and every principal and chorus member had found a truth in their character. There are some simple but stunning directorial touches, such as the maidens all hanging bunting in preparation for the husband raffle; the synchronised, almost other-worldly tea-drinking ritual as they sing their romantic troubles into their china; and an imaginative dance sequence that the (intentionally) clumsy dragoons execute.

The Union’s space is small, but presents no barriers for this production, though a glimpse of the ‘maidens’ after the show, trying to get changed while plastered up against the back of the set, brought home the realities of working as a large cast in this confined a space. The decision to pare the orchestra down to a single onstage piano, played adeptly by Richard Bates (who, I only observed after the curtain call, slunk off stage also in a skirt, not looking entirely comfortable about the fact) does not damage the music in the least, and the singing is sublime throughout.

I take my bonnet off to Sasha Regan who has committed to a startlingly bold vision for a lesser-known operetta that many people may consider to be dated. The result? Brilliant, clear, original and classy. Let’s hope this production has a life beyond the Union.

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