By Nick Pilgrim
This review may contain spoilers
In a collaboration lasting twenty-five years between 1871 and 1896, Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900), created fourteen tuneful comedies together. The team’s shows quickly became known for nonsensical plots, elaborate wordplay, catchy songs and biting political satire.
Striking gold with HMS Pinafore in 1878, some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s other notable works include:
- The Pirates of Penzance (1879);
- Patience (1881);
- Iolanthe (1882);
- The Mikado (1885);
- The Yeomen of the Guard (1888); and,
- The Gondoliers (1889).
Such is their ongoing influence, modern references have popped up in television shows, feature films and musicals like Car 54, Where Are You?, Family Guy, Foul Play, Frasier, Hamilton, Pacific Overtures, The Simpsons, and The West Wing. Considered the bridge between serious opera and the modern stage musical, Gilbert & Sullivan’s timeless appeal continue to be a hit with professional and community theatre companies around the world.
Located in Carson Place, The Butterfly Club is a Melbourne institution. Home to both rising talent and seasoned stars, to date the space has showcased such artists as Hugo Chiarella, Amanda Harrison, Tim Minchin, Eddie Perfect, Luke Phelan, and Jemma Rix.
Presented by The Big Hoo-Haa, The Very Model of a Modern Improvised Musical takes on the challenge of a different Gilbert & Sullivan show over four consecutive Saturday evenings this July.
Each week The Saturday Experiment will throw its team of performers off the proverbial deep end. Audiences are witness to them dog paddle for dear life or emerge from the murky depths triumphant. Think Celebrity Theatre Sports meets Spontaneous Broadway, with a little bit of Thank God You’re Here thrown in for good measure, and you’ll quickly get the idea.
Andrew McClelland does triple duty as the show’s master of ceremonies, fast facts historian, and narrator. Completely at ease in all three demands, his amiable hosting skills keep the tone light, and pacing on track for the show’s full sixty-minute running time.
To kick off proceedings, McClelland held up a small whiteboard displaying various tropes common to every Gilbert & Sullivan work. It’s clear he did his homework. Some of the hilarious (and entirely accurate) themes listed were:
- a patter song;
- twins lost at birth;
- a confession;
- everybody gets married;
- unexpected royalty;
- a madrigal;
- ridiculous names;
- breaking the fourth wall; and,
- a standing ovation.
An empty checkbox was drawn beside each topic. Whether the actors on stage could meet as many of the criteria listed, would determine the success of their improvisation.
On the night I attended, the seven-strong cast for round one featured Amberly Cull, Louisa Fitzhardinge, Brenton Gardiner, Jeremy Hughes, Kathryn Tohill, Greg Lavell, Brianna Williams and improvising pianist, Martine Wengrow. Throwing themselves into the pool with gung-ho energy, they were ready, willing, and up for the challenge.
What gives The Saturday Experiment its interactive edge, was how McClelland asked patrons for:
- a) the prime occupation of its players; and
- b) the show’s location.
The resulting Dentists of Antarctica was jam-packed with witty songs and crazy plot twists, both of which would make G & S proud.
The Butterfly Club’s downstairs room is a good space for this format. Meaning, with audience members up close and personal with the performers, at times The Saturday Experiment feels like an elaborate parlour game. Playing until Saturday 24 July, this is a quick and quirky night out for Gilbert & Sullivan and improvisation fans alike.