Sat 5th December to Sat 12th December
'Tarantara! Tarantara!' is a delightfully witty musical entertainment which tells the story
of the tempestuous creative partnership of the legendary Gilbert and Sullivan, the two strong-minded prodigious talents behind some of the greatest popular successes on the Victorian stage and which are still hugely popular today.
The show includes many of the best loved songs of Gilbert and Sullivan which are sung by the lead characters and a chorus of stage hands and backstage crew.
The show is fast-paced and tells a fascinating story: it is in turns humorous and moving.
You certainly do not have to be a G&S fan to enjoy it, and it has appeal for audiences of all ages.
Tarantara! Tarantara! By Ian Taylor runs at the Criterion until Saturday December 12
Some of us grew up with Gilbert and Sullivan as well as Lennon and McCartney. Our parents much preferred the former. So distinctively English; so quotable; so witty; so harmonious. Harmonious? Well, that may have been true of the end results of their collaboration - HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and more. But as Ian Taylor's play makes all too dramatically plain, the process of bringing the work of two very different characters to the stage was anything but harmonious.
The impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte is the one who "oyls" the wheels, as it were. He glides between the two, massaging massive egos, pleading with Gilbert one minute, Sullivan the next, sometimes wringing his hands with frustration, sometimes exploding with exasperation.
Always, though, he can offer the lubricant of loot - the lure of big money in other words to persuade Arthur Sullivan that his talents as a great composer can be adapted to what he dismisses "operatic burlesque", and WS Gilbert that the members of his D'Oyly Carte Opera Company are worthy of his words.
Peter Brooks looks and sounds the part of the oily d'Oyly, whether he's persuading, declaiming or wrapping his tongue and tonsils around the lyrics with the benefit of one who has been a G and S aficionado for many years.
It's fairly evident, too, that Bill Bosworth has a lengthy musical background. He seems to step up a gear as soon as be begins to rattle off those songs as the opera singer George Grossmith - no mean feat when you're articulating complex lyrics at top speed. Helen McGowan, meanwhile, recreates Rose Hervey's sublime soprano with considerable style, making the Criterion stage's transformation into the Savoy Opera House seem totally believable. Her triple act with Anne-marie Greene and Steph Stradling as Three Little Girls From School is one of the highlights of a memorable evening.
Under Annie Woodward's direction, the female chorus bustle and rustle around the stage, moving the story forward while conveying a real sense of the gossip and creative tension behind the scenes.
And the main parts? Well, Alan Fenn seems to enjoy himself as Sullivan in his first non-northern role at the Criterion. A heavily be-whiskered Keith Railton, meanwhile, expertly captures Gilbert's liverish irritation with the singers, the impresario and, above all, the man with whom his name will be linked in perpetuity. Despite having suffered from a chest infection in the week before the opening night, the old trooper prances and sometimes dances around the stage. Sings, too, projecting those precious words through the dense foliage on his upper lip.
Gilbert becomes increasingly dyspeptic as gout and insomnia take their toll. Yet, unlike Sullivan, he lives well into the 20th century, terrorising the pedestrians of London in one of those new-fangled motorcars like a metropolitan Mr Toad. He can well afford it on earnings of 10,000 a year, the Victorian-Edwardian equivalent of a Premier League footballer. Unlike performers at the Savoy Opera House, the cast and crew of the Criterion are paid sweet F.A. But, once, again they've given everything to lay on another splendid production.
Tarantara! Tarantara! Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, until December 12.
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes (including interval).
Comic opera was so popular in Victorian times that William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan earned more than successive prime ministers during their long and often ill-tempered musical collaborations.
Lyricist Gilbert was not an easy man - but he had a genius for debunking and satirising the English establishment and getting away with it.
Composer Sullivan, who was knighted early in their partnership, rubbed shoulders with royalty and spent much of his time believing he was diluting his genius on little more than music hall nonsense when he should be composing fine oratorios.
At the Criterion on Saturday (Dec 5) the audience was offered what looked like a genuine glimpse into the pair's turbulent relationship thanks to superb performances from Keith Railton, as the choleric Gilbert, and Alan Fenn, as tormented socialite Sullivan.
It's the wit of the words that overshadows him. And you could understand his "tarantara" frustration when Keith offers a tongue-twisting version version of The Nightmare Song from Iolanthe (1882). Not that Sullivan isn't redeemed in his music for so much else, including The Mikado (1885), The Gondoliers, Pirates of Penzance and so very much else that led to these "low-brow" little operettas becoming the most frequently performed theatrical offerings up until fairly recently.
The cast of the Criterion, directed by lifelong G and S fan Annie Woodward, presented what can only be described as a triumph of intricate teamwork, terrific singing and boundless good humour.
Naturally grumpy Gilbert has many of the best gags - but by no means all - and I loved the quick-silver character changes of Helen McGowan, Anne-marie Greene and the rest of the chorus, along with Peter Brooks' bombast as D'Oly Carte, Bill Bosworth's musical direction and Pete Meredith managing to do most of everything else.
It goes without saying the on-stage piano-playing by Liam Walker underpinned all of the above and made for one of the funniest and most informative evenings I've spent in the theatre for a long time.