Among the fourteen Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, it must be acknowledged that there are glimpses of weakness. The Gondoliers maintains one of Gilbert’s typically insane plots, which is best described as ‘topsy-turvy’ until the final scene, when order is restored. Likewise the music is far from Sullivan’s strongest score, but there are moments of inspired vocal writing.

Scene from Jeff Clarke's production of The Gondoliers at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Fest © Charles Smith
Scene from Jeff Clarke's production of The Gondoliers at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Fest
© Charles Smith

Following on from the success of last week’s performances of The Mikado – which were deliberately silly – it is difficult to decipher if Gondoliers director Jeff Clarke is attempting the same level of calculated silliness, or if it is simply an inconsistent production on a smaller budget.

The set for Act I features a Venetian square that serves as the location for all the action; Saint Mark’s basilica can be seen in the distance, and save for that one artistic focal point on the backdrop there is nothing else to look at except for the performers themselves. Act II features the interior of the palace and presents a much more eye-pleasing design, complete with golden throne, large vases and some plush furniture.

The performers are dressed curiously in an array of costumes, spanning at least 300 years. The gondolieri wear black and white striped tops and black plus-fours that might not be out of place today, and the ladies of the town also wear beautiful and colourful 19th- or perhaps even 20th-century dresses, complete with shoes that might be the envy of any living Milano model.

However, here things turn confusing – on the entry of the Duke of Plaza-Toro we are cast back centuries. The Duke himself is dressed as one might imagine Charles I to be, so 17th-century; his wife the Duchess is attired in an elegant 18th-century gown, and their daughter Casilda in a mid-19th-century dress. Similarly on the entry of Don Alhambra, we see that he is dressed as an 18th-century gentleman. Perhaps this confusing costume conundrum is intentional – but if so, why?

The performance itself was fine and offered some interesting interpretations but also included some unfortunate characterisation choices.

The orchestra played well technically but some elements of style were overlooked; there was a lack of musical ebb and flow, though this may be due to the advertised conductor, John Owen Edwards, being indisposed and David Steadman standing in – nonetheless, a pity.

The opening female chorus sang well but their diction left much to be desired.

Our heroes Giuseppe and Marco (James Cleverton and Stephen Brown), have strong voices and act amusingly together. Their wives, Gianetta and Tessa (Victoria Joyce and Victoria Byron), are very curious characters. Both ladies look the part beautifully (depending on which century we decide we’re in) but their performances present some questionable interpretation. Miss Joyce and Miss Bryon both adopt strong country-bumpkin accents – why? This is Venice – not Devonshire. The comic value of this was decreased when all the other actors spoke with the typical received pronunciation synonymous with Gilbert’s libretti. I would personally advise the ladies to drop these accents, as being different for the sake of it diminishes believability. In musical numbers both ladies sing well though the vocal lines would benefit from a slightly more tempered approach to vibrato which was occasionally too intense for Sullivan’s light tunes.

Dance routines for the four were entertaining and well choreographed.

Richard Gauntlett’s Duke of Plaza-Toro is amusing and well acted. Gauntlett suits the part and sings clearly – though the occasionally adoption of a nasal and abrasive accent familiar to aristocratic characters as created by Kenneth Williams can be distracting.

His wife, the Duchess, is tackled excellently by Jill Pert. A seasoned Gilbert and Sullivan interpreter of the best class, she was exemplary in movement, voice and character – in short, Miss Pert knows exactly what she’s about and communicates this flawlessly. Miss Pert also exhibits the most outrageous costumes of the show – huge gowns that don’t present much in the way of modesty.

As the daughter Casilda, Jeni Bern is as sweet and dutiful an aristocrat as befits a Gilbert royal. She matches her lover Luiz, Daniel Hoadley, in voice and style perfectly, and the pair make a happy contribution to the performance. Similarly, Donald Maxwell as Don Alhambra is suited to his role, comic and experienced in good singing and acting.

Of the gentlemen’s chorus, special mention is due to Joel Elferink and Stiofàn O’Doherty, who stood out as accomplished dancers.

Overall, this production is a mix of styles that occasionally sit uncomfortably side by side, and yet I would advise all British light music fans to support it in the hope that its flaws may be ironed out into an ever-growing and ever-successful festival.

I look forward eagerly to HMS Pinafore on Friday 10 August.