Mon, 4th Nov 2019

'The Sorcerer': A Review

Text by: 

John Parks

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University of St Andrews Gilbert and Sullivan

Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) shows are just fun. They are never profound, and should never pretend to be. They work because we are invited to condescend the entire human race, and afterwards we leave both elevated and personally unoffended.

Often, this is done by illustrating the ridiculous places people end up when they walk certain themes to their logical limits. So we get to watch the characters as they struggle beneath their inferior reason—a very paternal and very British form of comedy. It’s that chuckled, eye-rolling kind of humor. Your chin pressed firmly into your sausage neck, or a stiff, polite hand covering an irrepressible hoot as a juvenile silliness plays out in front of you. In this sense, Gilbert and Sullivan productions can resemble a glorious, naïve disaster, where human logic is always children’s logic. This is their camp, their innocence.

It is also their naughtiness — another British concept. Naughty, naughty Gilbert and Sullivan we say as they count their money.

None of this works against their shows, and the University of St. Andrews’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society put on a great production Wednesday night with their rendition of The Sorcerer, directed by Elisha Herring. It genuinely made me wonder what it was like for contemporary audiences of G&S to watch these things: none of this could possibly scandalize an audience today, and I wonder if it was ever dangerous enough to anyway. But the shows have the pomp and self-absorption of scandal, and it’s this game that becomes a joy to play when the cast invites you. And this is what distinguishes a great G&S production from a good one, too: I was somehow invested in the merry drama of it all, and the script’s conversation absorbed me.

The questions posed by these shows are always a little misguided, not on the nose so much as slightly missing the nose—hitting you in the eye, maybe. This production proves that the only way to handle this is to match its utter sincerity, with a cast committed to a brand of lunatic posturing.

The protagonists are Alexis and Aline, played here by Will Thorne and Alexandra Upton respectively. They are madly in love, and have the chance to conserve their love forever with a potion produced by a sorcerer. The sorcerer, however, resembles a travelling salesman, a mercantile fraud out for a quick buck. And so the audience is very skeptical of his powers, at least until he summons the swarms of hell to produce his chemical fares. Of course, it infects the entire town, and hijinks ensue, a junior’s version of Midsummer.

Upton and Thorne were well cast, with Thorne’s sly, underhanded performance matching Upton’s bold, cartoonish mania. If Thorne ever seemed a little too ambivalent, a little too calculating, Upton’s performance was perfectly unhinged, a hilarious caricature of hysteric, self-important love. The characters themselves are practically toy dolls, and I had a lot of fun watching the leads play around with them.

The titular sorcerer was played by Ben Connaughton, who I remembered in a secondary role in last year’s The Marriage of Figaro, and who without a doubt understands how to commit to a performance. His physical comedy is precise and distinct, delivering here a deft parody of the oily salesman whose dignity gradually gives way to desperation and insecurity. He always embodies his roles with instinct and spontaneity, a difficult balance to strike on the stage. Connaughton not only sticks it here, but also remains there throughout the show, constantly alive, constantly articulating some comic nuance.

Part of the fun of a G&S show is watching how the chorus is directed. They should have something to do, little subplots to carry out, and can almost constitute their own, separate performance, a sub-reality underneath the plot. When done right, these operas can achieve a strange, mechanical effluence, like the voyeuristic fascination of studying an ant colony, or looking through the rooms of a miniature home. Here, we did get a few of these touches, but the chorus needed a bit more texture. The sub-dramas that did roll out were well-conceived little sketches, and I wonder if these details could have been multiplied in the subtler fabric of the production.

Nevertheless, it’s one thing for a Gilbert and Sullivan show to be a complete virtual reality, and another thing altogether for it to still be fun. That’s the more difficult challenge, the one that takes a director with the right obsessions to pull off. In that respect St. Andrews’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society really succeeded this time.

This run is now finished. 'The Sorcerer' was performed at 'The Byre Theatre' from the 28th-30th October 2019. More information can be found on