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Fourth Time Lucky for the Leeds 'Yeomen'?

Review: The Yeomen of the Guard/by Gilbert and Sullivan; performed by the Leeds Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

Amid the heady celebrations of St Patrick’s Day ringing Millennium Square last night, no better seat could be had than at Leeds’ The Carriageworks theatre to watch Leeds Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s enchanting interpretation of The Yeomen of the Guard.

A little like the favourite tipple on St Patrick’s night, many find the works of Messrs G&S either to be pure genius or very much an acquired taste.

Thankfully, the former was the case last night due to the boisterously engaging and venerable Leeds G&S Society – perhaps the oldest of such type in the country – which has had over 100 years, metaphorically speaking, to ferment its theatrical art to near perfection.

The Society has won three Guild Awards for Best Musical in a row with their recent productions of Ruddigore, Princess Ida and The Mikado, and on the strength of last night’s masterly show, their exhilarating rendition of Yeomen may well  - and should - win them a fourth.

Under the energetic lead of Artistic Director Anita Adams and Musical Director Michael Williamson, the ensemble – born in the back to back streets of Hunslet just over a century ago – is clearly enjoying it new centre-stage home just opposite the Civic Hall, right at the heart of the city.

Yeomen is unusual among the G&S canon in that it is both more grand an opera, and a much more bitter-sweet one.

With a drop in audiences after Ruddigore in 1888, the pair were pressed to create a winning new work.

First Sullivan produced his oratorio The Golden Legend at Leeds, later to be presented to Queen Victoria at the Albert Hall.

‘At last I have seen The Golden Legend, Sir Arthur’, she is reported to have said. ‘You ought to write a grand opera – you could do it so well.’

The result was Yeomen, an ‘entirely new and original opera’, opening at the Savoy in 1888 which ran for 423 performances and which Sullivan thought the best of his collaborations with Gilbert.

And my goodness it showed last night.

All the key leads and stout chorus were in sparkling form, and given the fairly intimate confines of The Carriageworks, with its bijou orchestra pit, the power of G&S’s trademark rebounding/pizzicato-style vocals and intricate harmonies seemed even more to the fore.

John Tattersall made a marvellously dubious Colonel Fairfax;  John Haywood, handing over the role of director, a resolute Sgt Meryll, and Lucy Appleyard an extraordinarily watchable Phoebe.

But perhaps the toasts of the evening were Richard Pascoe as the doltish jailer Wilfred Shadbolt whose voice and clever acting range was captivating; and the quite brilliant Sarah Case as the loveable gyspy Elsie Maynard whose soaring, confident vocals and sassy stage presence are perhaps the highlight of the production.

And last but not least, last night’s delighted Leeds audience’s sympathies finally lay with the jester/fool  Jack Point, played by the indefatigably energetic Matt Stirk, who brought both fast talking jest, poignancy and literally one or two fireworks to the stage.

In such good company as this, and with an intoxicating mixture of dark and light in effervescent show on stage, no better substitute to the revelries of St Patrick’s night could have hoped to have been found among the bright lights last night.

A must for devotees and first time initiates - rush to see it.

The Yeomen of the Guard performed by the Leeds G and S Society runs until March 19.