Ages Ago

Ages Ago
Libretto and lyrics by W. S. Gilbert. Music by Frederic Clay. Preceded by Cradled Among The Reeds by Diana Burleigh. Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria. Director: Diana Burleigh. Musical Director: Geoff Urquhart. Directed by Naomi Tooby. The Malvern Theatre, Melbourne. November 23 - 26, 2023.

Ages Ago opened to huge success in 1869 at The Royal Gallery of Illustration (a name for a taboo 'theatre' in Regent Street, London) running a staggering 350 performances.  This premiere by the iconic GSOV (Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria) is a real treat for Melbourne audiences to enjoy a rare glimpse into the world of W. S. Gilbert and Frederic Clay, who wrote six operettas together. Composer Frederic Clay was a great friend of his fellow composer Arthur Sullivan, who introduced the latter to Gilbert, leading to one of the greatest theatrical partnerships in history!  

Passionately researched and brought to life by Director Diana Burleigh and Musical Director Geoff Urquhart (assisted by Ben Klein), this production ticks all the boxes. The extremely talented cast of ten is accompanied by a highly skilled musical trio consisting of Geoff Urquhart (piano), Riley Brennan (1860 Alexandre harmonium) and Katia Mestrovic (harp). It's not every day you see these three instruments played together and it's worth the price of admission alone to hear this rarely performed score.

Before Ages Ago begins, we are treated to a brief opener Cradled Among The Reeds, written by Diana Burleigh and directed by Naomi Tooby. This mini plot (full of clever and witty banter) is a meeting between Gilbert, Clay, Sullivan and Mrs German Reed at The Royal Gallery of Illustration, right before a dress rehearsal of Ages Ago. Stephen Capon (Gilbert), Jenny Wakefield (Mrs German Reed), Geoff Urquhart (Frederic Clay) and Andrew McGrail (Arthur Sullivan) each play their roles believably and with great gusto. Their characters are so vivid that the audience feels like these historic characters are right amongst them. 

Next the audience is transported to a castle in Scotland named Glen Cockaleekie (which incidentally is the name of a Scottish soup). Trust Gilbert to come up with a name like this! Similar to the plot of Brigadoon, every 100 years a new owner for the castle must be found.  Sir Ebenezer Tare has decided he may as well take possession of the castle until such time that the deed turns up. Being the type of a Victorian money-grubbing elderly relative, he refuses to let his niece Rosa marry her poor suitor, Columbus Hebblethwaite, who is staying for the night. That night, the paintings of the castle's former owners come to life and step out of their frames. They have all been painted at different times in history by various famous artists such as DaVinci and Michaelangelo. Their antics will have repercussions for the entire household. Who will fall in love? Who will claim the deed to the castle? What ensues is a hilarious riot of twists and turns that leave the audience in stitches from start to finish!

The simple yet eye-catching set design by Director Diana Burleigh consists of the inside of the castle, and period furniture, including a grandfather clock. Five life-size and three smaller portraits lining the walls and corridors of the castle (by Jordi Earley and Andrew McGrail) are exquisite to say the least!  Lighting design by Frank Croese is used subtly to heighten emotion, drama and intimacy during the songs, and to create a measure of excitement and fantasy during the scene when the portraits come to life. Costumes and wigs, coordinated by Marie Klein (Lady Maud de Bohun's costume designed and made by Robyn Pidcock and Sir Cecil Blount's costume designed and made by Sue Halls) are both visually stunning and accurate to the various time periods. There are five centuries of costumes represented here, including medieval, Tudor, baroque and Edwardian.

Katerina Collier in her debut performance with GSOV portrays her role of Rosa (Ebenezer's niece) with tenderness and vulnerability. Anna Castle's decades of participating in theatre is evident by her confident, strong portrayal of Mrs MacMotherly the housekeeper. Ben Klein adds some comedy relief as the bumbling kilt-wearing servant Angus MacTavish. His trio of 'Goodbye, Goodbye' with Collier and Castle was a strong opening number, well received by the enthusiastic audience. Ryan Jacobs (with his slew of theatre credits) rich vocals and larger than life personality, brought a professionalism to his role as Mr Columbus Hebblethwaite. Victorian Drama League nominee Andrew Ferguson, with his clever, sharp and understated delivery, embodies the role of Sir Ebenezer Tare perfectly. From his first vicious snarl as he exits his portrait, Sam Hargeaves is a winner with the audience as the flirtatious and vain Lord Carnaby Poppytop. Some of his one-liners had the audience rolling on the floor! G&S stalwart Jenny Wakefield shone bright as both Mrs German Reed and Dame Cherry Maybud. Her vocals on 'At twenty-three Lord Carnaby' with Hargreaves were a riot and brought the house down! Andrew McGrail's over 20 years experience with GSOV was evident in his on the money portrayals of Brown (the newest portrait in the castle) and Arthur Sullivan (whom McGrail has a striking resemblance to!) 

Amelia Le Plastrier (Lady Maud de Bohun) is a riotous paradox and commands the stage at every turn. Her strong voice exudes power and projection and her comedic timing is innate. Her rendition of 'I breathe! I live!' was vivacious and fun and endeared her character to us right from the outset. Amelia is a music therapist by day, and judging by the riotous laughs and applause the therapy is working at night also! Stephen Capon (W. S. Gilbert and Sir Cecil Blount) although relatively new to GSOV brings panache, charisma and a naturalness to his role. Capon and Le Plastrier have exceptional onstage chemistry with a spontaneous sense of timing and rhythm together. Their duet 'Moments so fleeting' and 'In pity tell, O lady mine' were standouts of the night!  

I came into this production with low expectations due to my lack of knowledge of this relatively unknown operetta.  However, right from the curtain opening I was whisked away from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne traffic into another world.  My plus one guest was shocked when I commented that the cast were all amateurs. Due to the caliber of the show, he thought it was a professional production! We enjoyed it so much we could've gone straight back in and watched it again! 

For lovers of W. S. Gilbert, Ages Ago is a rare gem worth uncovering!   Ages Ago is vocally en pointe, visually stunning and a riotous offering for all ages! 

Jonathan Cox

Photographer: Robin Halls

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