How did they know? It was as if Gilbert and Sullivan heard that The Gondoliers was going to get a revival in 2006, so they slipped in a satirical number on the subject of cash-for-honours to make sure the show would still be up to date. Free tickets all round at Labour party headquarters.

The Gondoliers may not be Gilbert’s sharpest libretto but, with a passing tilt at privatisation and frequent digs at the monarchy, there should be enough here to work on. Martin Duncan’s new production for English National Opera gives the outward signs of being a laugh per minute.

The set shouts comedy at you with mock Venetian bridges hanging from the walls and there is enough synchronised comic mugging to make the theatre’s foundations start to vibrate in sympathy, wobbly Millennium Bridge-style. So why does this feel a long evening with little to tickle one’s sense of humour?

Not, for once, because the words are inaudible, the usual bugbear with operetta at the Coliseum. Donald Maxwell sets a perfect example, getting every syllable of Don Alhambra del Bolero’s patter to trip off his tongue, but the rest of the cast are not far behind.

David Curry and Toby Stafford-Allen make a nicely youthful pair of gondoliers; Rebecca Bottone is a winning Casilda; Geoffrey Dolton offers another of his zany caricatures as the Duke of Plaza-Toro; and it is good to see Ann Murray in the cameo role of the Duchess, even if her two scenes are so far apart that she could go off and sing half of La Cenerentola in between. Musical standards under conductor Richard Balcombe are very acceptable.

The problem is that the show is dead below the surface. Although Duncan has given his production a coat of gloss paint that looks modern, he has no specific ideas about how to bring the scenario or characters to life in today’s world.

The Gondoliers comes across as a dated and fatally innocuous entertainment. Next time it might be better to treat G&S roughly: update the dialogue, sharpen the wit, and give the audience a poke in the ribs.
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