Express G&S John Savourin and David Eaton Charles Court Opera Company Wiliton’s Music Hall August 2023

WS Gilbert died in 1911 and Agatha Christie was born in 1890. So they could, in theory, have met. I doubt that they did – that is until Charles Court Opera Company introduced them to each other in this ingenious, enjoyable show.

A detective named Philippe Pierrot (Matthew Kellet) with little black tashes and a ridiculous French, not Belgian, accent is on an old fashioned express train travelling through England. He is supported by the guard, Reggie (Matthew Siveter) and the flirty trolley lady, Bridget (Catrine Kirkman).

Then her trolley, characterised by its doilies is mysteriously wrecked and Philippe has to solve the mystery of the broken doily cart (cue for gleeful audience groans and chuckles) on which he finds clues such as a peer’s coronet, a jester’s stick and a long silver hair. Yes, this is a show which will delight G&S aficionados although there’s plenty here to amuse the rest of the world too.

Express G&S derived, I understand, from a lockdown attempt to devise something socially distanced by a company which knows, loves, and is highly experienced in, these operas.

It’s a 75 minute show, modelled on popular Victorian one act-ers such as Trial by Jury and Cox and Box. Once the scene is set it serves up songs from, and references to, every opera G&S wrote with Siveter and Kirkman becoming different characters.

Often the words are re-written and there’s a clever version of Koko’s little list song, sung by Siveter (good) reworked as an account of the train’s passenger list. Most of Gilbert’s outrageous characters are on board including “a protoplasmic globule who’s really quite a bore” along “The Duke of Plaza Tor.”

The linking dialogue is wittily clever too as we nip from one show to another – all so familiar but gloriously mixed up. The entire oevre, including a tasty little anthem from The Grand Duke, is lurking somewhere in the melange.

As a die-hard G&S fan, I chuckled, at the reference to Thespis whose score is lost and at the line about the carpet quarrel. These are the sort of things that G&S buffs know about but they aren’t laboured in this show – just there for you to pick up if you will.

Some of the songs are more or less straight. Kirkman’s “The Sun Whose Rays” (The Mikado) is delivered with immaculate clarity and vocal warmth. So is Kellet’s nightmare song (Iolanthe) when he can’t sleep on the train. Kirkman’s Buttercup number (HMS Pinafore) though, in which she extols the goodies on her trolley, has nippy, witty new words including references to Sally Lunns and pork pies from The Sorcerer.

Meanwhile David Eaton, who does a fine job on piano and I admired his semi-Shakespearian prologue, gives us many musical clues and signals.

There’s a storm, for example – shaking carriage and flashing lights – and, predictably, we hear those atmospheric, descending minor scales from Ruddigore beginning quietly under the dialogue before we get “When the Night Wind Howls” with the three verses split between the three actors.

Inevitably, a lot of the music has been arranged. Some keys have been changed and it’s fun to see a woman taking on “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One” (The Pirates of Penzance) Occasionally the balance is awry, though, and from row D, at least, Kirkman is sometimes overpowered by two very strong male voices in trios.

All three performers, especially the versatile Kirkman who sings both soprano and traditionally alto roles with aplomb, have a knack for casting delicious looks at the audience. Moreover they really know how to deliver this material: the diction is crystal clear as it has to be.

It’s fresh, fun and intelligent. Well worth catching if you can.

Susan Elkin