In 1967, at the 50th Anniversary dinner of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society (G&S) Chairman Graham Boxall, parodied words of the Major General’s song from Pirates of Penzance. In verses and refrains, he “pattered” through the society’s history, summing it up this way…. “For 50 years we’ve done our shows, we’ve moved, we’ve marched, we’ve walked the boards. And under great coercion we’ve exercised our vocal chords. We’ve built our sets, we’ve painted scenes with difficult geography. We’ve even tried to execute some complex choreography.”
Twenty years have passed since then. 2017 may be G&S’s 70th anniversary, but the words still apply. Except the society has grown in strength, style, and repertoire. Although back in 1941 Dr William Pickerall (Municipal Orchestra conductor) had asked a Mrs Jack West to produce G&S operas, and she produced Iolanthe/Patience, and under
Geoffrey Miller The Gondoliers – the G&S society only formally began on 8 December 1947. That’s the date a foresighted group gathered at The City Hall and decided to constitute, and name themselves – The Cape Town Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
In 2013 the word “society” was dropped, formally becoming Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan. Viva Voce (with voice) became one of the organisation’s arms. G&S Juniors aims to attract young folk.
Between them, they will not only continue producing their annual G&S opera or musical, their sights are set on presenting smaller productions. The mini-opera Trial by Jury is their first such effort. Back to G&S’s history: During the war years, various variety shows, directed by Mrs West, fundraised for the war effort. Now, with the war over, and ₤100 profit from her Yeoman of the Guard production, the group wanted to continue presenting G&S comic operas. Generously they gave ₤50 towards the Cape Times Fresh Air Fund. The newly formed G&S committee (chaired by Mrs West) banked the remaining ₤50 for future production costs.
Through the years, under numerous directors – including Mrs West, Marjorie Hill, Nan Cunningham, Helen Houghton, Teddy Davies and Kyla Thorburn – and musical directors – including Walter Swanson, John Badminton, Christopher Dew and Alistair Cockburn – G&S has performed virtually every G&S opera in various venues. These include City Hall, Labia and Hofmeyer Theatres, Claremont Civic Centre, Baxter Theatre and Artscape’s Arena, Theatre and Opera House.
Around 1995 G&S moved into musicals like West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma. Celebrating Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady’s Diamond Jubilee, Kyla Thorburn’s 2016 production walked home with several prestigious Cape Amateur Theatre Awards. Such now is the society’s technical and artistic standard they’ve received four invitations to the G&S Festival in Harrogate. Triumphantly returning, in 2015, with 12 major awards for director Roche Buckle’s The Mikado – G&S’s 100th production.
Now in their 70th year, G&S are celebrating their Platinum Jubilee with three different events. The first, Trial By Jury had a short run from 31 March to 2 April in Artscape’s Arena. The second will be a Gala concert of G&S songs and choruses, supported by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra on 6 May. Number three is their grand annual production – Harold Arlen and EY Harburg’s Wizard of Oz. It opens at Artscape on 16 September – 8 October, 2017.
Cockburn, backed by over 40 years with G&S and musical director for 36 of their productions doubles as Trial by Jury’s musical director and director. Helen Broekmann gives piano support. Trial by Jury, the first successful collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, serves notice of their talent for parody and future as an exceptionally creative team. Gilbert’s witty, punning librettos are matched by Sullivan’s genius for musically duplicating Gilbert. In Trial by Jury, a dig at the English legal system, Sullivan masterminds “a Handel-like fugal chorus and a typical Italian opera-type ensemble”
Good diction and ensemble singing
The setting is a Court of the Assizes in an English village. The case concerns “pretty as a picture” Angelina (Karen Wilson-Harris). She’s suing handsome Edwin (Barend van der Westhuizen) for breach of promise. Villagers are agog that such a case should take place in their village and The Usher (Marius Steyn) has no trouble swearing in 12 jury, drawn from farming, golfing, ordinary working men and the local squire. In the spectators gallery are women – replete with knitting and picnic baskets as well as a couple of nuns, and members of the press with cameras very much in evidence. Visiting Judge (Simon Speck), bewigged, red-gowned, flashing an outsized “ruby” ring and a treasured potted poinsettia, overseas proceedings in a most bizarre fashion.
Accompanied by two mini-skirted bridesmaids (Anke Ermel, Lara Basson), when Angelina appears, it’s obvious the entire court champions her. Wilson-Harris (Yum Yum in the Mikado) has a sweet, clear soprano, very clear diction, and as good a ham actress as one would wish in an Angelina. She could flirt, sigh, cry and faint whenever necessary to gain the court’s sympathy.
We also met van der Westhuizen in My Fair Lady, when he successfully portrayed Freddy. Of the entire cast van der Westhuizen has the most outstanding voice. A trained singer, not only is his diction excellent, the ease with which he can crescendo then diminuendo gives him full control over his volume. He is a fine actor who has a quiet, but essential confidence… a very fine and lively performance.
A court trial is naturally pretty static. But Cockburn’s debut as a director succeeded in getting as much movement as possible, without either jury or onlookers becoming overexcited. Not being hindered by mouth-mikes, the all round diction and ensemble singing proved exceptionally good.
Due to Trial by Jury’s brevity, Cockburn organised a “curtain raiser” from five G&S operas and My Fair Lady excerpts. Of the 7 items wittily introduced by Ken Leverton, Ian Kirkwood’s patter song The Nightmare from Iolanthe, stole the show. Downstage left, offering piano accompaniment throughout the evening, sat competent Helen Broekmann. Cockburn, sitting behind his music stand, conducted proceedings from the front row.
The idea behind Viva Voce productions is to give younger and newer G&S members an opportunity to regularly perform in smaller works. Then travel to outlying districts…what a grand idea.
G&S Gala: 6 May at 8pm
Wizard of Oz: Artscape, 16 September – 8 October