Closed circle murder mysteries are always popular with lovers of the genre, and even more so with theatre makers who can take advantage of a small cast and fixed location. But Charles Court Opera are not known for making things easy for themselves, not only does Express G&S attempt an Agatha Christie style mystery, it also incorporates references from almost every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta you can name.
Like so many productions, Express G&S was slated to debut last year, but was forced to postpone due to the pandemic. Now, finally making its way to the newly reconfigured main house of Islington’s Pleasance Theatre, John Savournin hopes the show will appeal not only to Gilbert and Sullivan fans, but help encourage a new audience to savour the delights of light opera.
Much of the fun of the evening comes from trying to spot the many, many, references to Gilbert and Sullivan; the songs are obvious of course, even with some lesser-known numbers included, and the inclusion of new lyrics from David Eaton. But there are plenty of more obscure references too, and even G&S devotees might struggle to spot them all.
In our eagerness to spot all the Savoy opera nods, we might be forgiven for forgetting that there’s also a “murder” to solve, and to be clear, this production is using that term in the loosest sense. Express G&S follows in the footsteps of Murder on the Orient Express by setting its adventure on a moving train, but instead of Poirot, we get a French version of the detective who flexes his little grey cells.
As ever, this is another of Charles Court Opera’s productions that doesn’t take itself too seriously, much of the droll humour is met with groans over laughter, and some of the running gags get a little tiresome.
Even with the luxury of a closed circle mystery, Charles Court Opera challenge themselves by having a cast of just three to play all of the roles. Matthew Kellett sticks to the detective role, one that he carries off convincingly, while Catrine Kirkman and Philip Lee take on everyone else.
The staging looks good, with train compartments formed from flats and benches on wheels, giving Express G&S a sense of movement in a static space. Setting Gilbert and Sullivan’s music against a story from a different genre works surprisingly well, and allows us to enjoy the work in a new way. John Savournin may just have accomplished his goal of giving Gilbert and Sullivan a new audience after all.
Not quite a style-less affair, but not Mysterious Affair at Styles either, though it’s not trying to be, this is a production designed to put Gilbert and Sullivan centre stage. Express G&S felt like it ended shortly before it was about to be derailed. But it is, at the very least, some much-needed fun, after a pretty horrendous fifteen months. There are plenty of jokes that do land, and those familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan will find even more to chuckle over.
Express G&S is at The Pleasance until 2nd July. Tickets are on sale here.
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