‘Gilbert and Sullivan’s Improbable new musical:…. and Helen’, was performed as part of 2021’s Brighton Fringe. Performed by the Coily Dart Theatre Company, written by Susan Ellerby and co-directed by both Ellerby and Norman Hockley, this was presented as an audio- show.
The story centres on Helen Carte (Catherine Tuckey) and her role that is largely undocumented within the Gilbert and Sullivan Company. With references to several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, it relays the story of Helens life with the company (with assistance from the internet and equally the imagination) and begins from the time she left school in 1867. Rather unusually for a woman in the Victorian period she was well educated and appeared to be the backbone of the Gilbert and Sullivan success. It is an extremely enjoyable parody, littered with many comedic lines and hilarious scores that are unique to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
The characters of W.S Gilbert (Norman Hockley), Arthur Sullivan (Mike Jones) and Richard D’ Oyly Carte (Craig Butterworth), the latter of who studied in Leipzig to cries of ‘we know’ whenever it was mentioned, performed as if they were together in the same room. With excellent timing and a sense of close knit camaraderie-to the listener the script audio was as if it was performed on stage.
In view of the current pandemic and related restrictions, rather impressively, the cast of eight never met face to face during the production. The complexity of arranging the music and vocals amongst eight individuals who had not been able to meet must be applauded as the ensemble and also the solo singing was simply seamless. Vicki Hing as Musical Director must be congratulated for the way it was presented – it was audibly faultless.
With some trepid anticipation regarding how easy a listen this would be compared to the energetic, ‘laugh out loud’ visual you observe on stage when watching Gilbert and Sullivan ‘live’, I was more than pleasantly surprised that this was such an easy listen. This audible version relies entirely on the listener’s imagination and whilst the listener may miss the extravagant costumes and all that a visual on stage entails, it was because the characters were so clear in this audio version that the listener immediately created an image of who was who, perhaps more immediately than on stage.
The Coily Dart Theatre Company seemed to have produced another fringe success. With previous sell outs at Edinburgh Fringe, this one is surely going to follow. It may be many years since the introduction of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, but it is wonderful that finally Helen Carte, who was clearly not only a key contributor to the company, but in many ways to early theatre itself, is finally acknowledged.
The audio version will make you smile from very early on – a delightful listen and would be embraced by all Gilbert and Sullivan fans. The operetta finale includes the fact that following Helen’s death the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas continued 107 years after she died- and of course they will surely go on for many more years after this! Streaming until the 27th June, this is one not to miss, especially for the die-hard obsessive lovers of all that is Gilbert and Sullivan.
Reviewer: Angela Kelly
Reviewed: 19th June 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★