Friday, February 19, 2010

That would be delightful!

Well, I guess the dust has settled from the comments brought about by my thoughts on The Gondoliers, so I'm at it again. Flame away people!

Regular readers will remember Clippy's comment that we have high standards for Iolanthe around here. I have been in one and watched several others, and while most have been excellent, they have each been let down in one or two areas and cannot truly be said to be like the immortal MP of the title role's dreams. What follows is a pick-and-choose of the best features of each.

As I said before, believable acting is probably the one thing that makes a production go well. Can the audience really believe those people are what they're supposed to be portraying? Can they laugh at the peers, reel back in awe of the fairies, wish to pat Phyllis on the shoulder to comfort her in her dilemma, and tell Iolanthe she's a complete angel? If not, the show is a failure.

Let's go through the characters in order. The Lord Chancellor can be played as a pompous old ass, but remember he has to have enough substance for Iolanthe to love him dearly. Obviously he has an ego, we know that from "When I went to the bar", but he must have been quite something - even Phyllis felt herself possibly able to fall in love with him! Couple this with high morals and a strict regard for the law (the letter, not the spirit of the law - as we see when he decides to insert "not") and the leadership ability to command the respect of the entire House of Egotists, and you have your Lord C.

Lord Tollollarat - now here we have REAL pomposity and truly room temperature IQs. I guess it would be possible to play them as smart guys acting stupid in order to manipulate the LC to do things that benefit them, although I've never seen it done. Then again, their lack of success in getting a girl (specifically Phyllis) would tend to rule that out. Once again Gilbert is striking a blow at the old English institutions - what qualifies these men to lead the House of Lords and make decisions which affect millions of people? Nothing but the fact that one of their ancestors hundreds of years ago did something which convinced a monarch to bestow a favour. Strephon is quite right to work for the abolition of such a system.

Private Willis is something of a mystery. A director (for whom I yield to nobody in admiration for her private and professional ability) once confessed in my hearing to wrestling for some time with the direction of the character, before finally designating him Phyllis's protector - a kind of early Captain Fitzbattleaxe. This interpretation stands up to criticism, but I don't see it in the text. However, I don't see any other reason for him to exist (except to be a sort of mouthpiece with no bearing on the plot, like the Fiddler on the Roof - which I think is a rather crude device and unworthy of Gilbert's great and brave reputation) so that interpretation wins by forfeit.

Strephon - really just a classic theatrical lead tenor. The whole plot revolves around him, and yet he has very little influence on it. Everything is happening to him, outside of his control. A little confusion would not be misplaced. His love for Phyllis is of course 100% genuine, as is his love and respect for his mother. He has a lot of respect for the Lord Chancellor's authority, and it takes all his guts to marry Phyllis against his will. Unlike many tenors, his ego is somewhat smaller than a planet - merely the size of a medium sized comet or meteoroid. We know this because he is content to be a shepherd's lad instead of exercising his immortal brain as a high powered engineer on an unbelievable salary.

I've seen the Fairy Queen played as a fearsome dragon and as a loving mother of the fairy company who just happens to be incredibly powerful. (Fairy Queen, FQ, incredibly powerful... there must be something clever I can say there...) I think the latter interpretation is preferable - after all, she has enough feelings to show mercy to Iolanthe after she blots her copybook, and to still want her back 25 years later. As a bonus, it gives a bit of variety in the contralto roles across the canon - there's enough Ruth/Lady Jane/Katisha/Blanche characters to be going on with.

To properly interpret Iolanthe herself it's important to know what was going on in Sullivan's life at the time the opera was written. His own mother had just died, and the music he put inreflected the love he had for her and the complete admiration he held for her selflessness in helping him become what he became. On Strephon's first entry, she has the story of the century (or at least quarter century) to tell - but she doesn't push in, she lets him tell his story first. And of course, she comes within an inch of sacrificing her life for his happiness. Those incidents a keynote to her character supply.

The leaders of the fairies (C, L and F, another good locomotive pun), and indeed the entire chorus of fairies, are a bit of a paradox. Traditional stories of fairies indicate that although they look like teenage girls, they have wisdom and maturity beyond their years and are too haughty and powerful to even speak to mere mortals except in anger. But this doesn't really fit with the dialogue. For Fleta to be unaware that it's injudicious to marry a mortal indicates that she at least is fairly junior. And for her to be the first to jump in with a request for information about Iolanthe's handsome young son suggests that she has a heart and therefore she loves (to say the least). And of course we know that in the second act the entire company follows her example... All that aside, it makes for much better staging to have them act like young innocent children, full of fun and completely suited to stepping into The Mikado with no questions asked.

Phyllis is a mystery character. Like many leading sopranos she has her blonde moments, as one director I know often says, and yet she is capable of swift thought on occasion. Like Strephon she is genuinely head over ears in love, and has a great respect for the authority of her ersatz daddy and the House of Lords. She has a bit of the ambitious gold-digger in her, which is overcome by Strephon's immortal good looks and love for her but comes through when his influence is removed. On balance I'm fairly sure she's genuinely humble about her own appearance - it's possible to play her responses to "Have you ever looked in the glass" and "Why did five and twenty [liberal|conservative] peers come down" as fishing for a compliment or ironic humour, but that's not what I'd expect in their relationship. Similarly, when the entire House of Lords sings her praises, she could be either totally flummoxed by this unaccustomed attention, or just lapping it up. But if she's lapping it up, why put a stop to it with "Ah, my heart is given"? A compliment-fisher would string them along a lot further.

The chorus of peers are very important to the show. It's a much more difficult role to play (I should know!) than a simple red-blooded sailor, pirate or dragoon guard who just has to strut around on stage and show a bit of lust whenever someone of the female persuasion is present. They have to be fairly stupid, and yet so completely eligible that they can induce a bunch of fairies to abandon the laws they've been brought up with. And they have to make that entrance march believable too - as I said above, WSG is slinging a shot at the idea of hereditary peers, making the whole concept look ridiculous in the eyes of the audience. So it's vital for the peers to be so completely over the top in their combination of arrogance and incompetence that it becomes a farce.

As always, it's good to have each chorus act as a group of individuals rather than a homogenous lump. That way everyone can choose their own way of expressing the necessary emotions, which makes them more realistic.

Line by Line - acting and lighting
The show opens on a fairy ring. There are plenty of legends but no real ones, so each member of the audience will have their own idea (very vague only) as to how it should look. That makes it difficult. However, I'd be guessing that all the audience ideas would agree that it doesn't drizzle in fairyland, nor does it hail or thunderstorm (except when FQ is unhappy with somebody). So let's give the opening scene a fairly standard sunny day lighting state. I've seen several productions where the lighting comes up gradually and in very specific places to highlight bits of staging. No problem there, as long as it comes up to a sunny day at the end of all that.

Tripping Hither can be interpreted as the fairies having fun (which fades as soon as the song ends), or just doing their duty and not enjoying themselves. I think at least the section from "We can ride on lovers' sighs" should evoke a positive reaction - they're talking about the bare necessities of life, they can't be too downhearted. I've been in a production with two ballet dancers who illustrate the riding, after which the rest of the chorus act the warming, clothing, bathing, arming and hiding - this was a stunning effect visually (as were the young ladies in question - one of whom was my dancing partner in the finale) but obviously it's only one possible interpretation out of many.

The dialogue has to be fairly heartfelt. If they're still pining for their sister after 25 years they can't just speak her name with no emotion. Make it genuine of course - don't just put in an affected sigh after every mention of her like "The Tisroc-may-he-live-forever", that's quite the wrong idea.

The FQ's statement that Iolanthe taught her to do everything fairies naturally do is a somewhat anomalous one. How could she have become queen without already knowing all that - or if she rose through the ranks after learning, why didn't Iolanthe rise higher? This is one of WSG's weird ideas that we aren't supposed to delve too deeply into (like Ralph marrying his foster-brother's daughter). But that makes the rendition difficult. Probably the best way is to ignore that difficulty and make it a sort of soliloquy - Leila mentions her love for Iolanthe and it starts the Queen down memory lane. Then Fleta, who knows how to read the signs of the face even if she doesn't know all the fairy laws about what's injudicious and what's not, seizes the opportunity with both hands and tries to do fairyland a big favour.

The invocation obviously needs a check-down of the lights. For a simple show, just a basic dim. For a more ambitious one, have the Queen's mystic gestures echoed in the patches of light and dark on the stage. Cross-light and up-light give the idea of mystery and something unusual going on. A narrowly focused spot or special on each of the prinnies as they sing, with a bit of yellow in it, will give the audience the idea that they're sizzling with mystical energy. We don't want to bring the lights right up when the chorus start though, we have to save that for "Pardoned!". So we can just bring a bit of light onto them, emphasizing the social strata of prinnies vs chorus in fairy power.

Iolanthe's dramatic entrance covered with water weeds needs something effective out of the costume department. I have no idea aboiut that sort of thing, just make it look realisitic. Again we have the ridiculousness of having her live in the water. Don't fairies need to breathe or something? Be that as it may, she's been living down there and is sodden. Dripping clothes on stage are a safety hazard, but a slightly reflective material to indicate wetness and unkempt hair will give the impression that she has indeed spent 25 years under water. For lighting, a warm yellow special on her as she enters, slight build over the FQ's merciful statement, and a huge build on the chorus "Pardoned!" - every bird is singing in celebration of Iolanthe's safe return. The degree of checkdown for the invocation will dictate whether this state is the same as the opening, but I rather think it should be.

I've seen productions where they strip Iolanthe's wet clothes off her, give her a hot bath, rub her down with the anti-vapour rub, give her little feet a mustard bath and dress her during the following dialogue, but that's pretty cheesy really. Her exit isn't far off, she can reset her hair then.

I've always thought it a bit unusual that the Queen should launch straight into the business of the day instead of having 25 years of news to catch up on. But then, that was the purpose of the summoning. Maybe the chorus can indicate a lot of general catching-up-type chatter during "Welcome to our hearts again" - it only takes some fancy footwork, high speed hand gestures and well thought movements of the upper body to give that impression. As a matter of fact, that would be a better way of doing it than the usual thing of kisses all round and maybe the presentation of a bouquet.

From there the dialogue is fairly understandable. Just act it properly - always remembering to insert the necessary pauses to digest new information. FQ the actress knows Iolanthe has a son and isn't surprised, but FQ the character doesn't, and really should be at a loss to deal with this astounding piece of news. Congrats FQ, you're a grandmother!

(On that note, there's no actual statement in the dialogue that the FQ is the mother of the rest - only a hint when Strephon says "My grandmother looks quite as young as my mother". But I think it's a relatively safe assumption.)

"Good morrow, good mother" is usually played well. It's just a theme song, it doesn't need anything special in the way of lighting or acting apart from what's obvious from the words and music.

As I mentioned above, Iolanthe is showing her motherly unselfishness in pigeon-holing her own news until Strephon has had his turn. This can be hinted at in facial gestures ("Nothing easier, for here he comes, and boy don't I have a story to tell him!" changing to "With joy beyond tellingyour bosom is swelling? Tell on, I'm all ears!") although it's not easy to project that to the entire audience. Still, the 25% that do pick it up will enjoy the show so much more if it's included.

Iolanthe should be overjoyed at the news - her fondest hopes are to be crowned, the barriers to her son's complete happiness have been removed! She can hardly wait for the music to finish before expressing her delight at the happy result. And when she does, it's not a question requiring confirmation, it's a simple bubbling over of poetical emotion. And obviously when Strephon says "Not he, indeed!" the let-down should be obvious.

The following dialogue is a little bit unweildy. Strephon asks who the bevy of beautiful maidens might be, and in the course of explaining Iolanthe tells him the biggest news item since Victory in the Pacific. Usually it's done badly, with Iolanthe appearing to ignore his question and just spilling the news. Another way would be for her to say "My queen has pardoned me -" as if it's just background information and he cuts her off before she can add "- and these ladies are my beloved sisters". But she knows he's a good boy and would be delighted at the news, so I don't think that's right either. Probably the only way is for the sense to be "Who are these? That's the least of it my lad! Where shall I start? Biggest news first I guess. My queen has pardoned me! Digest that for a bit and then I'll give you the rest."

The rest is fairly straightforward, apart from the pause for thinking before the light bulb goes on above FQ's head and she says "I've a borough or two at my disposal, would you like to go to Parliament to see the longest escalators in the Southern Hemisphere?".

Strephon's reactions to the adoration of a bevy of beautiful maidens is a tough one. Any red blooded male would react strongly - and yet he's (provisionally) engaged to the most beautiful Ward in Chancery the world has ever known. It's unthinkable that he'd be anything but faithful to her, and besides, these are his aunts! So maybe a slight embarrassment as he seeks to keep his affections platonic.

Then in comes Phyllis. She's such a stunner that an entire House of Lords (some of whom are sixty-seven nearly, and that's putting it kindly) fall for her in a body. In real life there aren't any girls like that, so we need a good lighting change to stun the audience in support of her. There's the story (I'm told it's apocryphal, but that may be just a rumour) of the actress who had it written into her contract that whenever she entered the lights were to be brought up three points. Just enough to get people onto the edge of their seats. That's the sort of thing we need here. Strephon, of course, has to have the love light leap up in his eyes as if it's controlled from the board. I think we can patch that into channel 302? Thanks.

"Well, we're to be married" - this is not Phyllis casting aspersions on the state of holy wedlock, she adores him! She's just stirring him up and pricking his bubble of pompous poetry. You see, she doesn't know about his half fairyhood which compels him to be refined and poetic. "I suppose it is" is in the sense of "Do you know, I really think you're right! On consideration I have come to the firm conclusion that 2+2 DOES equal four!" Then there needs to be a happy pause before her conscience deals her a blow and she shares her anxious fears with her boyfriend.

"Have you ever looked in the glass?" - clearly a rhetorical question. He isn't fishing for useless information about her habits in past life, he's telling her that his passions will not be smothered, defy all attempts at extinction and break forth all the more eagerly for long restraint. When she says no, she doesn't really mean she has no idea what she looks like, she's just trying not to appear vain. If she had said "Yes dear, I quite understand that you can't wait to marry a girl of my beauty" we'd be sorely disappointed. Of course he keeps trying to pay her a compliment so he hands her the glass, and then she has no choice - like Rose Maybud she always tells the truth.

"You might fall in love with the LC himself" - Strephon should throw this line away like it's of no consequence - "You might emigrate to the moon by that time", "You might meet a wicked witch and be turned into a frog by that time", etc. Phyllis's response is another joke - oh yeah baby, I'll fall in love with the LC! And when I get tired of him I'll elope with Osama Bin Laden!

Strephon then tries to bring her back down to earth by the reference to the dangerous House of Lords. Specifically dangerous to them, I mean, not just generally dangerous to the nation like all politicians are. Think about it darling, what made them pay you a visit? It's not like they're so short of hunting and fishing that they came for the sport. Be realistic, they're after you.

And then we have that stunning duet, which always brought home to me the thorough beauty of the show as I watched from the wings. Give us a summer's day lighting state with a bit of pink or purple highlight.

(Here comes the good bit - this is where I come in!)

I alluded above to the peers' role being actually quite difficult, as their character has to be so extreme it's funny. Their entrance, of course, is vital for establishing their character. Depending on the size of the chorus it may be possible to have fairly simple choreography of the Lords arriving at work and sitting down to start their day's work of sitting. Personally I don't see the need for a long, heavily choreographed march, it doesn't add anything. But on the other hand, how else can a director fill the time available? The music lasts a long time. A happy medium would be to have a long, slow march but one that has purpose - in and out of the rows of benches, getting to where they're going. Purposeless choreography of the "four paces forward, then four paces back, then march on the spot for four counts, then forward again" type just highlights to the audience that this is not real. Bad idea.

The Lord Chancellor's song is a fairly simple one - it's not really plot, it's background characterisation and just needs to be played according to the words. The chorus just have to confirm that what he says is true, without calling too much attention to themselves.

The following dialogue is completely straightforward - just act it according to the character of your part. It's amazing how many times I've seen a bad job done of it though! A very important thing to remember is that this is the way these people naturally talk - it's not something they have to practice, it just flows naturally out of them. Take for instance Toll's comment "I desire on the part of this House to express its sincere sympathy with your Lordship's most painful position" - that's Peerish for "Poor fellow".

I like the idea of the chorus responding to the "Can he marry his ward without his own consent?" bit. These are professional hair-splitters about law and propriety - they each have an opinion (sic) and love discussing them. So of course they're over the moon that the LC has asked their opinion. It's obvious that it would be a conflict of interest to give his own consent to his own marriage with his own ward. It's equally obvious that it would be downright criminal to marry his own ward without his own consent. But committing himself for contempt of his own court, and appearing by counsel before himself are topics on which they could discourse for hours. LC, give them a bit of time to talk it over amongst themselves and then respond - don't go overboard though.

The party is broken up by the only possible means - a Non-Maskable Interrupt in the form of Lord Mount heralding the arrival of Phyllis. Again he is speaking his natural language - it shouldn't sound affected.

The peers immediately drop everything - almost like sailors/pirates/dragoons. In a dream-like state they gravitate towards the fair delicate creature and wax lyrical about her stunning features. Lord Tolloller puts their feelings into words, and then a sudden thought strikes him - she's a commoner! It would be highly unusual for any of them to marry her. And yet, he says, is not that vast social gap in itself a solution to the problem? Can not a man who is so far above average give a portion of his virtue to his humble wife, thus bringing her up to his own exalted level? This is idealism, House of Lords style, and the rest of the peers are so touched by his generosity (and by the fact that he's removed the barrier between them and Phyllis) that they immediately fall in with the sentiment.

Lord Mountararat, slightly miffed at his rival getting the upper hand, puts in some spadework by cracking a joke. On the spur of the moment he picks as a subject the only thing he knows anything about - the political system. Hey ha ha, I just thought of something! We all belong to parties, but - heehee - we belong to you much more than that! Waaaahahahaha! Careful you don't laugh your head off now!

As I said above, Phyllis's response to every young girl's fondest dream is a strong indication to her actual character. As soon as she can get a word in edgewise, she tries (kindly) to put them on ice by saying "Yes I know you're all eligible bachelors, but I'm not so worldly that I fall for that kind of thing. When I marry, I marry for virtue."

But these professional debaters are made of sterner stuff than that - getting a word in edgewise is like threading a sewing machine while it's running. Toll gets up and has an aria, and the peers give their assent to his sentiments. Ah, he really has a neat way of putting things. Spot on Toll old chap. For lighting I guess we need a spot, but not too strong because it will kill the thing dramatically.

After that the peers actually decide to let the girl have her say. She grabs the opportunity with both hands, and seeing that her gentle efforts had no effect, gives them the full benefit. I am engaged! Engaged! To a Strephon fair with bright brown hair and all that.

Let's have a lighting change on the peers' horror. Less yellow and more white - a chill has crept into the atmosphere and Bad Things are in store.

To me it always seems awkward for the LC to enter right on his dramatic line. What's his motivation? There isn't time for anyone to have gone and fetched him. Probably the best way is that he was about to enter anyway, and came in just in time to hear his dear (honorary) daughter committing sacrilege - rather like Sir Joe Porter on "Why damme it's too bad".

Pack 'em into the wings, because Strephon has to enter too. I rather like the dramatic entrance I've seen on several different productions - he leaps tall rostra in a single bound and takes centre stage just in time for his line. Hold off on the lighting state change - we're getting enough adrenaline from the action on stage, we're already on the edge of our seats so we don't need to overdo it. We'll have another cue in just a few more lines, can you wait until then?

"Neath this blow" has to be fairly heartfelt, in a peerish way. These people are unaccustomed to being refused when they urge their suit with this much eloquence. They're rushing off to their room to sulk! In the musical bridge between "Dignified and stately" and "Though our hearts" we get our long awaited lighting cue. Storm clouds have come up on the horizon and are approaching fast. No more yellow, it's mostly open white, with lots of darkish areas on the stage. A bit of cross light (but not too much), but up light is just gilding the lily.

As they exit, LC sends Phyllis to her room. It's the logical thing to do, I don't know if every production uses it but they should. With only two people on stage we can return to a more normal lighting state - without any of that highlight which says that Miss Universe is in the room of course. Do the change over a long time as the peers' exit music is finishing, that way we don't notice it and it just helps change our mood without us knowing.

Strephon's longish speech about bees, breeze, seas and the expression "if you please" doesn't need any serious work - just act it, believe it and the innate ridiculousness of the text will carry you through. The only thing is to speed up noticeably (subject to Strephon's dictional abilities) and then have an obvious let-down before "Sir, you are England's large hadron collider". The sense is, he's bubbling over with poetical emotion and there's so much to say that he chokes on it. So he comes down to earth and tries another, more prosaic tack. Even so he can't resist getting fairly poetical at the end of the sentence.

And then obviously the LC should be puzzled by this. This is the first time in at least five years he's been stumped by a question of legality - and he certainly hasn't been thwarted by a higher power for a while. "But my difficulty..." is his attempt to get the conversation back where he wants it - in his own area of expertise. "You mustn't tell us what she told you" is the coup de grace, control is firmly back within his grasp. He's so happy to have it back that he skates right over Strephon's last attempt to reintroduce poetry to the discussion.

This whole episode leaves Strephon feeling numb - he knows his last hope has been crushed, and yet it hasn't hit him properly yet. The LC's song slowly removes the cotton wool from his brain and he gives vent to his feelings. Luckily Mum's there, and responds perfectly. It's all straightforward character acting here folks, nothing too complicated. The only thing I want to highlight is "If he did but know!" - the two have to work out between them how they're going to do this. Make it believable, but don't forget this is an important plot point, don't skate over it too quick.

And so to the Finale. The audience need to see the Earls bringing Phyllis in to see the spectacle of Strephon making out with a particularly young lady, so we can't have utter blackness on stage, but we want it fairly close to that. It creates the impression that Strephon and Iolanthe see nothing but each other.

I think the usual method of having the Peers hiding behind bits of scenery and popping their heads out for their lines is a bit corny - they're not eight year olds playing hide and seek, for goodness sake! It would be better if they were just out for an evening stroll and are turning up their noses at the plebeian spectacle before them. They don't do anything about it because it's beneath their contempt, but somehow they can't bring themselves to just walk on.

Obviously when Phyllis cuts loose we need the lights up so we can see what's happening. Normally it's done as a night scene, which fits OK but we have to wonder why dusk is so short. No location is specified, Strephon could easily have wandered miserably from the House of Lords out into whatever district of London his mother's fairy ring is located in. If not, we have to wonder why Iolanthe was visiting the House... never communicate with him again, that's the rule, remember? But then, Phyllis and the peers are nearby - maybe it's just a London park and Iolanthe happened to be in town shopping for dancing shoes for the troupe or something. She seems to be the sort who'd do that.

As a good boy myself, and playing the part of a gentleman, I always felt awkward making fun of Iolanthe after Strephon's mother line. I wouldn't be that rude about anyone, let alone a lady! But that's what Gilbert wrote, and plot-wise we need it to stay in order to justify the FQ's wrath.

Keeping the laugh going over the LC's intro music is not easy, can we have the MD speed things up slightly? We need more than the scored (Ha)^9 to make the headmaster come in to see what the racket is about, even though it seems to go against the peers' dignity.

The way Toll and Mount alternate on the explanation can be played as the LC asking one, not getting any satisfaction and going on to the other - I have known it done. Or it could be done as one-upmanship, hey I'LL tell this joke! I think that would work better, as long as the musical gap can be covered.

Strephon's ballad about his childhood and Iolanthe's views on the vexed topic of breast vs bottle feeding is another classic example of music soothing the savage breast - similar to Katisha being won over by Tit-Willow. Moriarty, plan B - I'll play the sopping violin. (Incidentally, that's one more correlation between Gilbertism and Goonism - the two best forms of humour ever written!) Then Mount brings things back to earth by pointing out that Strephon hasn't actually submitted any actual evidence.

The reality finally hits Phyllis and she's madder than a wet hen in a hornet's nest. Her eyes flash, her lips curl, her breast protrudes, her cheeks flame - hey Phyllis, you're beautiful when you're angry. OK, I'm going.

Phyllis's aria is a bit difficult to stage. She's just given a couple of dozen guys a chance to get in her ear, and whoever hangs back loses. But she can't sing an aria with them all crowding around her! And it would be in conflict with the character of the peers (to say nothing of distracting the audience from the aria, which is what makes lead sops murder stage directors) to have them all fighting each other off to be first in line. That can be made slightly less of a distraction to the audience by pulling the lights down a fraction and putting on a spot. See if you can cross fade it guys, to keep the total amount of light on stage constant.

On the other hand, something must stop the chorus from hearing the aria, because they join in the eager "ME! ME! PICK ME!" questions when she comes down off her soapbox, even though she clearly said "you two" several times.

Then Strephon comes back in, and gets a frosty reception. In victory, malice. In defeat, revenge. They can't even be nice to Strephon to make up for stealing his girl!

Then we have the entrance of the fairies. I still know nothing at all about costume stuff, but I have to say I've never seen anything like the visual effect of our 2006 production. The peers were all in white with coloured robes, the LC in black of course, and the fairies were all in yellow. They entered from both wings and it looked like an explosion of yellow on the stage. That helped bolster up the idea that the peers were totally cowed by the fairies (not that our brilliant acting needed bolstering, of course). Nice one. Oh, I nearly forgot - can we have the lights up a bit too. The audience won't notice it as a light change because of the movement, and it will get them on the edge of their seats.

On the same note, one of the several Iolanthes I saw in the past 12 months ran "The lady of my love" at a fairly cracking pace - I forget what Iolanthe, but so the pace goes. I liked. The audience are now leaning forward from the edge of their seat, risking their equilibrium - which, if we're careful, we can make them lose right on "beGONE!!!!", recovering just in time for "Chancellor unwary". The lighting for this has to be VERY simple - no cross-light, just a straight daylight colour wash.

We can take it down a few points when the peers sing "We never knew we were talking to an influential fairy". What remains of their egos after the Explosion of Fairies has just been dismantled. And now The FQ delivers the coup de grace - punishment. She doesn't forget what the punishment is for compassing the insult of a Fairy Queen, either. CLF join in - which means that either the FQ is not omnipotent and needs some backup for tricky spells like this, or CLF just want a piece of the action. Bless you, it all depends on your interpretation of the FQ.

From there, it's all straight character acting until the curtain comes in. Keep up the movement (dancing and choreo are other things I know nothing about) but keep the lights fairly steady. Do it well and the audience will have very sore hands as they file out to prop up the economy of the wine industry.

OK, on to act 2! Private Willis has the inestimable privilege of opening the thing with what I have to say is the finest single example of WS Gilbert's skill with the English language. Every rhyme is polysyllabic and not a single line feels forced. A good Willis needs to understand that the goal of a rhyme is to divert attention away from itself. If the audience notice the rhymes (without specifically trying to, of course) it can only be because they're imperfect or absent. So don't emphasise them - that would be gilding the lily. Let the audience see the lily in all its natural beauty and they'll enjoy it better.

As with all arias, it's not easy to know what stage business to put on the song. Standing downstage centre like it's an opera concert is uninspiring. Pointless choreography is pointless. I have seen it done as Willis noticing that his superior officers aren't looking so he can sit down and take his hat off and make a cup of tea, but I think he's more conscientious than that.

For lighting we don't need anything special - just a fairly normal daytime wash with enough highlight to cast natural-looking shadows from the paraphernalia on stage. Also, for future reference, Willis has a little dark corner to hide in while the choruses are doing their stuff.

Then on come the chicks again, gee they're cute. And misbehaving like teenagers again, what are this generation coming to? And those are precisely the thoughts of the peers as they enter a few moments later. These maddening beings are making sport of us! It's not RIGHT!

The song and dialogue are fairly straightforward. The thing to watch is the Pickford line. I have no idea why, but it always gets a laugh - even though Allied Pickfords are far from the most prominent courier in today's society and have dropped the "We carry everything" slogan. Just skate right over it Mounty old boy, if it gets a laugh that's good, but don't plan for one.

The brains line also needs careful treatment. "I often wish I had some myself" must be thrown away - it's a rhetorical statement, a ploy Mounty has often used with great effect in the House, which makes a speech sounding natural. It's pure babble intended to keep the listener interested while he sharpens the real point of his speech and draws back his arm to thrust it home. With a good orator playing the good Lord M, the audience will miss the line the first time, then their brains will revisit it half a sentence later and the laugh will be bigger.

Women interfering in politics was, of course, a hot issue at the time (to the point where WSG wrote a whole show about it not too many years later) and is still understood now. It can be delivered as a minor prophet denouncing the sins of the people, with appropriate murmurs of consent from the chorus of converted, or another throw-away line for the audience to see the humour of, a sort of "Well I don't want to say I told you so, but if you look up Hansard for the 12th of September 1854 when we were discussing this very issue..."

"When Britain really ruled the waves" can more or less carry itself, as long as the Mount keeps up the acting. Believe it and all will be well.

Just in time for "In vain to us you plead" we need our first lighting cue for Act 2. The fairies are trying to make the world believe that everything is fine, fine, fine and they're just playing fairy rings again. So let's go back to that state (with the addition of Willis's little dark corner). And they can assume the same attitudes they did - except when they say "Don't go!" which should be acted as the line is written. Actually, every production I've seen renders this song very well, and the dialogue leading into it. Keep her as she goes.

Then FQ comes in. Let's have a very subtle lighting change here - we have come down off the ecstasy of the fairy ring and there's a bit of sheet lightning on the far western horizon because Her Majesty is angry. The scene is fairly easy to stage, it all explains itself pretty much. Just don't forget to have Willis step out of his little dark corner.

The Captain Shaw reference is a sort of problem. Some companies put an explanatory note in the program, but that doesn't really work - the punters either read it beforehand and wonder where it's going to come up, or read it after they've forgotten the passing reference. Better just to skip lightly over the difficulty and let those that wonder, wonder.

The next scene is one of my favourites. All through our 2006 season I was standing in the wings watching the pathos unfold, and thinking once more that a good Phyllis is worth her weight in precision cut binding machine blades. All potential Phyllises reading this, please extract every ounce of feeling you can out of this scene. You're on the verge of tears at every moment. And of course you know this already - when you say you hate Strephon, you're not only trying to convince any passing lamp-posts of the fact but yourself as well. For once let's leave out the Miss Universe lighting state - she's feeling miserable so let's keep it down.

When the two earls enter and start making passes, act naturally - always assuming you're a fairly spirited girl (that cuts out 0% of lead sops I've worked with or heard of) but not quite so spirited that we'd need a new pair of earls for each performance. Be reasonably apologetic when you realise the awful truth, and make up by being as kind as you can without actually compromising yourself.

The rest of the scene actually explains itself quite easily, remembering what I said above about this being the natural way these people talk. "My existence would be hopelessly embittered" is to them as normal as "I wouldn't like it a bit".

And then in comes the Chancellor, for what is probably the best patter song in the canon. There are lots of different ways to render it, but the only course open to the director is to get the best possible patter man and let him run it himself. If he gets stuck and needs a hint, go for it, but the last thing you should do is choreograph it rigidly. Light it as a night scene, preferably with a hint of haunted house pale blue. Drop it at the end of the song with a slow return to the daylight state we had before.

Then those pompous sounding earls come back and speak in their natural tongue for a bit and we get what is probably my favourite song of the whole canon. Sir Arthur, you were absolutely inspired when you wrote this. A more upbeat song I have not heard! Back it with a slight boost to the lights and the audience will be on their feet.

Right, that's that scene gone, now for the penultimate. We still have a loose end in the form of our lead couple who are not yet a couple. Of course we know they have to end up together, but we want to see how it's done. Strephon comes in and talks to the brick wall (which I never see done in real life, despite the number of times I heard it threatened back in my school days) and then Phyllis overhears her name and reveals (to herself and everyone else) that she was really pining for him to the point where she sought him out in his private office. Once more, it's simple dialogue that just needs to be understood and acted.

And so everything is patched up and we're back to the beginning of the show - the only difficulty is Daddy Chancellor. Iolanthe tells her darling boy the secret of his origins, Phyllis sees the implications of this (don't forget to think a bit first, Phyllis - there's no rehearsals for releasing-shocking-information sessions), Iolanthe refuses to play ball and we all exit.

LC comes in with a reasonable slab of dialogue which (all together now!) just needs to be acted, and then Iolanthe decides to play ball after all. As the music starts bring the lights down and put in a bit of mystical uplight. Our chief weapon is fairy eloquence, but the Jedi hand waving trick plays a part too. This is not the wife you are looking for, husband dear.

Drop the uplight when she finishes her speech, but leave in the dark state. Make it even darker as she decides to sell her soul to the devil in order to buy happiness for him, her and thee, and if we're ambitious give us a lightning bolt as she says "I am thy wife".

As the Fairy Queen comes on (finding her duty hard to do today) give us a stark white - the blood has drained from everyone's faces as the horror of it all falls upon us.

As British Law saves the day and the Fairy Queen changes both the letter and the spirit of the law with the stroke of a pencil, bring us back to the happy fairy ring state. It can be a bit noticeable - in one fell swoop every problem has been solved and the characters can pair up like it's a musical comedy. Oh wait, it is.

And on to the finale! Sing up, look carefree and happy, don't forget to sing to the audience even though you have eyes for nobody but the hot girl you have your arms around, and mind out for the curtain calls.

Great show everyone, well done!