Eleanor Burke and Robert Nicholas star in the productionRuddigore Company

“The problem with Cambridge,” said my friend “is that everybody ruins things that should be fun by being far, far too good at them”. These were wise words – potentially the wisest ever said over insipid Sidgwick coffee – and they seem unnervingly pertinent to the Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) society’s production of Ruddigore, which I saw at West Road Concert Hall last night. Not that the G&S society ruined Ruddigore; rather, they took an obvious and infectious enthusiasm for the show and gave it full rein to flourish without bowing to the boring and pedestrian concerns of blocking, audibility, or, well, acting.

I am aware this is harsh, and I do not in any way want to minimise the great effort that all involved put into staging the operetta, nor do I want to conceal the fact that I had a great time. I had potentially the best time I’ve had at any Cambridge show ever. It just didn’t feel much like a Cambridge show. West Road is massive, and lovely, and there was a great sense of occasion coming into the auditorium with its huge stage and orchestra pit. The backdrop was impressive, and the lighting was consistently excellent, with special mention going to the shadow work in the ancestors’ scene.

From the moment the actors came on-stage, however, the aforementioned occasion of which the audience was getting a sense was revealed to be quite remarkably close to a better-than-average school play, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The costumes were consistent and suitable to the time period (in that they appeared vaguely, and possibly were quite precisely, “old-fashioned”), although the dresses of the professional bridesmaids who made up the female chorus were reminiscent of my old school’s attitude towards costuming; get a sack of old prom dresses, and distribute them by size.

The bridesmaids had a lot of singing to do, and unfortunately most of it was inaudible in Row I. In a venue as large as West Road it is probably necessary to give microphones to the singers, as ADC musicals tend to do – and if this is logistically and financially possible for G&S, I can only recommend it. On top of their inaudibility, the bridesmaids had what can only be described as varying levels of commitment to the concept of acting, but it must be said that some members handled the comedic elements of the play particularly well. The male chorus also dealt deftly with their pieces of physical comedy, and directors Edward Green and Anna Smith must be praised for that.

Eleanor Burke played Rose Maybud and she too was consistently funny in her delivery. It really would have been nice to be able to hear her better, for when it was audible her singing was beautiful, and she handled the demanding role well. Robert Nicholas played her love interest, Robin Oakapple, and their first duet together was the first really engaging moment in the show, improved by the fact that Nicholas’ voice actually did carry, and we could catch the humour in the lines. Given how important humour is to Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, it’s a pity this pleasure came so rarely.

Michael Morrison, playing Oakapple’s foster brother Richard Dauntless, deserves special praise for committing to a Cornish accent through thick and thin, and for a really quite fetching hornpipe. His initial scene with Nicholas was probably the funniest in the show, with full marks going to Nicholas for the delivery of “But I’m timid, Dick” which I certainly found hilarious. Katie Green played Mad Margaret and she really was very good. At first I was impressed merely by her ability to scuttle in heels, but as her scenes continued her commitment to acting as well as singing, and her obvious enjoyment of her role, had absolutely stolen this reviewer’s heart. Her relationship with Despard, played by the excellent Jonatan Rosten, was really very touching. Final cast mention (it was a very big cast) must go to James Ward, playing Adam, whose pantomime valet was extremely funny.

So goes the praise, which is deserved. In contrast to this is the fact that the blocking was very messy, with the wedding dance in particular looking more like a heaving mass of people than anything which had been particularly choreographed. This quite grievous fault, combined with acting that frequently fell far below the standard of Cambridge theatre, and songs you sometimes couldn’t quite hear would normally imply a star rating of about two. But I had, at Ruddigore, the time of my life. It wasn’t professional, and it certainly wasn’t slick. I probably spent more time laughing at it than I did laughing with it, and God only knows what was going on with the weird semi-dancing during songs but the key fact is, I spent a lot of time laughing.

The G&S Society has been described by many (not least its own president, within the Ruddigore programme) as a cult, and I don’t think that can really be disputed. If it is a cult, though, it’s one of the nice ones, one of the ones you look at and think, “Well, they do seem to have quite a touching communal spirit, don’t they?” Ruddigore might be awful as a production, but as an experience it’s hilarious and therapeutic. I am therefore confident in my four-and-a-half stars, and highly encourage you all to go and taste the Kool-Aid.

Ruddigore is on at the West Road Concert Hall until Saturday 10 February

Sponsored links