'They've done away with King Hildebrand!' my companion the Gilbert & Sullivan Expert (GSE) whispered to me in shocked tones as she read the programme at the Finborough Theatre. It was true. But does expunging King Hildebrand actually matter?
I know enough about G&S to be aware that Princess Ida isn't often performed. As the critic H. M Walbrook wrote nearly a century ago: 'The characterisation is better than the plot; the music is better than either.' While it contains some of Sullivan's catchiest tunes and some excellent lyrics, the plot creaks alarmingly and the idea of poking fun at women's education is dated and misogynistic. So for this revival, director Phil Wilmott has carried out major surgery; he has revised the text, eliminated some characters and changed others to try to make the story more coherent. The ladies get to sing 'We demand equality, our cause is fair and just!' For GSEs and purists, this may pose a problem, but not for me. I was more worried beforehand that this might turn out to be a case of unwise updating to bring it into the 21st century, leaving it stranded between two eras. Luckily, it isn't. Wilmott's concept is entirely Victorian and I don't think Gilbert would turn in his grave at any of the changes.
With two small pianos on either side of the Finborough's cramped acting space, Sullivan's overture doesn't sound at its best (this may be deliberate). But the singing is absolutely top-hole, and so is the movement and choreography. There's no archness or knowing irony, and the cast play their parts absolutely straight. Simon Butteriss as Gama effortlessly bridges the gap with the audience, patters the patter songs with great aplomb, and manages to look very like Michael Gove.
Bridget Costello not only sings beautifully as Ida but gives a subtle acting performance as well, suggesting a layer of self-doubt under the princess's outward confidence. Full marks also to Zac Wancke as Hilarion, and to the rest of the cast of princes and fair ladies. Hildebrand or no Hildebrand, the show is a hoot. To quote that most disagreeable man Gama, there is NOTHING WHATEVER TO GRUMBLE AT.