Gilbert & Sullivan might have left a legacy of extraordinary daftness, but their operettas have endured for two major reasons: they’re fun, and the lyrics are pliable. By LESLEY STONES.
Certainly their lasting popularity can be attributed to several other reasons, too, but it is this playful adaptability – the way in which the lyrics can be customised – that was the chief attraction for singer Jonathan Roxmouth, who has revived them in the one-man show Topsy Turvy.
Roxmouth was last seen strutting the massive stage of Montecasino’s Teatro, playing the Phantom, but he seems completely in his element in the tiny Studio Theatre, where Topsy Turvy is currently running. He’s a big presence for such a small space, and he fills it beautifully, instantly delighting the audience with his humour and easy, engaging style.
The fact that he wanders onstage in a ridiculous outfit that is enough to make you laugh out loud on its own doesn’t hurt either.
Roxmouth introduces himself as a Gilbert & Sullivan addict, and does credit to the operettas that were written in England over a century ago. At the time, they ridiculed the issues of the day, including corruption, polygamy, nepotism and the practice of politicians defending their perks. No change there, then.
So it’s unsurprising that with a tweak of a lyric here and a fresh gesture or mannerism there, the songs are quite easily repackaged as a commentary on South Africa in 2012.
To add to the appeal, the presentation is sumptuous. The stage is decked out in Vaudeville-style red velvet, and Roxmouth’s main prop is an old chest with dozens of drawers, from which he produces wigs and false moustaches for a rapid succession of minimal but highly effective costume changes.
The lighting is spot-on, too, making the close space feel even more intimate at times, or opening out to light the way for some audience participation.
Topsy Turvy is a collection of Gilbert & Sullivan songs strung together by amusing introductions and plenty of visual humour. Roxmouth and director Alan Swerdlow have collaborated on the banter, developing some hilarious political and social satire.
Roxmouth’s beautifully rich voice can handle accents too, from lower class English to a Joburg taxi driver’s daughter and her Indian suitor. He swings us through almost 20 characters, and sings familiar tunes from the Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado, along with several other less famous, but equally adaptable, numbers. Inevitably he’s “Got a Little List”, rewritten to condemn a variety of modern social crimes and criminals.
The second half begins with a wonderful sketch of a wacky conductor leading his orchestra, then switches into instructions on how to construct your own operetta.
At about two hours long, Topsy Turvy begins to feel a little over-stretched towards the end, but you still leave chuckling after a quick-witted show filled with pace and variety. DM
Photos by Damian Crook
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