AN innocent man facing the executioner’s axe assumes the identity of a returning war hero and, in a daring bid for survival, hides in plain sight under the very noses of his captors.
Set in the grim shadow of the Tower of London, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard is the closest the much-loved Victorian musical theatre legends ever came to creating a truly grand opera.
Since its debut in 1888, the story of handsome Colonel Fairfax, his escape from imprisonment and his romantic entanglement with strolling players Elsie Maynard and Jack Point has become one of the most enduring and well loved of all the Savoy Operas.
And although its colourful, dramatic and emotionally charged story may seem darker than the majority of Gilbert and Sullivan’s mainly comic works, the idea of switched or mistaken identities is actually much the same as audiences have loved in everything from HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance to The Gondoliers.
Gilbert claimed that the idea for the opera came to him while he was waiting for the train on Uxbridge Station and spotted an advertisement for The Tower Furnishing and Finance Company, illustrated with a Tower Warder.
Having rejected other plots as too frivolous, composer Sullivan welcomed Gilbert’s new scenario as ‘very human and funny’ and the pair went on to create a hit that would run for well over 400 performances on its West End debut.
It’s has since become a staple of the amateur circuit and Sheffield’s Dore Gilbert and Sullivan have performed The Yeomen on the Guard three times since their launch in the early 1970s, once in Dore itself, with subsequent revivals at the University Drama Studio.
Now they are returning to the story with a fresh production directed by Dore regular Graham Weston at a new venue, the Merlin Theatre in Nether Edge.
“The word for The Yeomen of the Guard is definitely drama,” says G&S veteran Graham.
“It’s the only one of their works to have such a completely realistic setting so as a director I think I have to honour that and bring to it a sense of realism and of drama.”
It is, as he points out, the odd one out in the G&S cycle of shows, a stand along piece that even has the distinction of being the only one with a tragic ending.
“I think I must have directed it five times now and it is one that I enjoy returning to because it touches the audience in a very special way and moves them in a way that is unique – it’s the one chance you get with Gilbert and Sullivan to do something different and leave them stunned.”
That’s not to say, though, that Yeomen of the Guard is all deep despair and heavyweight emotion.
“There’s plenty of good humour in there,” Graham says. “And if some of its dark humour then it is certainly still very funny.
“And the characters are brilliant, some of Gilbert’s greatest creations because they are real people displaying real emotions and that’s how they must be played all the way through.
“It didn’t use to be my favourite but the more I work on it the more I think it could be heading that way.”
Dore Gilbert and Sullivan Society present classic operetta The Yeomen of the Guard at the Merlin Theatre, Meadowbank Road, Nether Edge, from April 10 to 13. For tickets call 0114 2363797 or visit doregass.weebly.com/tickets.html