Free Life 36, April 2000, Topsy Turvy, Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 36, April 2000
ISSN: 0260 5112

Topsy Turvy
Mike Leigh/Pathe Distribution, 1999

With Mrs Gabb, I went to the pictures last week, to see Topsy Turvy. This film covers the year in the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan between the opening of Princess Ida and of The Mikado. It was an astonishingly good film. The performances were wholly convincing. The actors who played Gilbert and Sullivan brought them to life as I have never seen done in other biographical films. The actors who played singers could sing, and those who played musicians could play their instruments. Moreover, the background was properly drawn. Late Victorian England was revealed to us – not in the BBC sense of street scenes and hansom cabs, but in the sense that I could think the cinema screen a window into another world.

And what a splendid world it was. It had elegance and manliness and multiple drug abuse – that is, all the things one might expect to find in a free society. The dentists would disappoint me; but a few rotten teeth might be a price worth paying for the right to jump through that cinema screen and seek asylum in a freer and therefore a better world.

Then there were the performances of the works. When I was a boy in the 1970s, I went to dozens of performances by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. With the exception of a Yeoman of the Guard from late 1975, these were awful. The orchestra played badly – and played too fast in an effort to cover the bad notes. The performers were obviously bored with what they were doing. The sets and costumes had all seen better days. There were gramophone records that showed how the operas should sound; but I never saw reason to respect their appearance on stage. Topsy Turvy has recreations of how Gilbert wanted them to appear, and most impressive it was. I hope someone will now try for a proper staging of at least The Mikado.

© 2000 – 2017, seangabb.

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