Review: Gilbert & Sullivan’s Improbable New Musical … & Helen (Brighton Fringe)

In Coily Dart”s latest production, which again presents the work of Gilbert & Sullivan “with a twist”, the impact of Helen Carte is explored as she sorts out copyright issues, brings the house company together, pushes forward the creation of the Savoy Theatre and hotel, and acts as the peacemaker between WS Gilbert (‘Willie’) and Arthur Sullivan.

As a successful librettist and composer of a run of popular comic operas (or operettas), Gilbert & Sullivan achieved tremendous fame and status in artistic circles, along with their producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte. While their contribution is well-known (there are statues to all three, and their names are synonymous with the English operetta style), Helen is under-represented. This show gives her a voice at last.

The music of this most English duo is still almost instantly recognisable, which allows major numbers to be subjected to playful and affectionate treatment as the play unfolds. Under Helen’s gaze, the three men who created fourteen works together do not seem at all well-suited, and it takes all her tact and diplomacy to support them through their glory years.

Promotional image from Gilbert and Sullivan's Improbable New Musical ... and Helen

This is an audio play, rehearsed and recorded at the end of 2020, with the cast kept seperate. There are no gaps, and the editing keeps things light. In the time-honoured G&S tradition it drips with moments of comic exuberance, has lashings of wit in its lyrics, and – essential to such a project – leaves you with a huge smile on your face and humming the tunes, which cover all the works beloved by Savoyans.

Norman Hockley as Gilbert and Mike Jones as Sullivan are beautifully cast and bring the pair of creatives to life, especially Sullivan’s airs of grandeur. The infamous carpet incident, which even has its own section in the duo’s Wikipedia bio, is covered with charm and the tentative courtship of the fussy D’Oyly Carte (Craig Butterworth) and Helen herself (played with wry amusement and brisk efficiency by Catherine Tuckey).

As someone who was brought up on the likes of The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, and Trial by Jury, I knew I was going to love this, and I hope you will too. It’s absolutely delightful, and the cast of eight handle all the supporting parts and vocals with style and sophistication.

Fringe rating: ****

Gilbert & Sullivan’s Improbable New Musical … and Helen is streaming at the Brighton Fringe until 27 June. To book your tickets, go here.

For more on the Coily Dart company, follow them on Facebook or Twitter.