The Yeoman of the Guard, Savoy Theatre, London

Gallows humour
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The Independent Culture

It's a tricky one, The Yeomen of the Guard. No matter how often you see it, you're never quite ready for its "seriousness". The sombre undertow of history weighs heavily on Act I, the anticipated execution at its close underscored with the tolling of the death knell over mournful chorale sounds like nothing else in all Gilbert and Sullivan.

Add a touching humanity and an ending that turns from joy to misery in a single inspired reprise and you've something on an altogether higher plane than anything else in the G&S canon. We're halfway to the full-blown English "opera" they so wanted to write. But only halfway. Yeomen is still many light years and a couple of hours short of an English Meistersinger .

Even so, the director Ian Talbot gives it his best shot in this D'Oyly Carte offering, courtesy of Raymond Gubbay. As ever, the problems have more to do with budget andsinging talent than anything else. The "home-spun" quality of these shows is not really up there with G & S's aspirations. But Talbot can make a lump of the laughter in our throats, and he's help-ed by one terrific performance: Paul Barnhill as Jack Point.

Jack is arguably G & S's most inspired creation – the jester who must make people laugh though his heart is breaking – and in Barnhill's smart, highly physical performance we get right away from the clapped-out G & S patter-man of tradition. He has the voice, the diction, the clown's agility. He is funny, sexy and very moving. He wears his red nose as if comic relief is no relief at all.

The other touch of genius is the way Jack finds kinship with the Jailer and head torturer, Wilfred Shadbolt, played with relish by Graham Stone. They become a most unlikely music-hall turn with "Hereupon we're both agreed"; both unlucky in love, both purveyors of laughter born of unhappiness. Not surprisingly, Shadbolt's line in tortuous (ouch) anecdotes does not sit well with the object of his affections, Phoebe Meryll. Maria Jones plays her with excessive energy and gesture, her arresting contralto bearing little relation to a nondescript speaking voice. A more traditional humour is given to Sergeant Meryll – bluff, booming Gareth Jones – and the indomitable Dame Carruthers (Jill Pert), whose fondness for the execution block has set her features in an expression redefining the term "hatchet face".

Her niece and side-kick Kate should win the talented Sophie-Louise Dann a place in the annals of artful upstaging. Oliver White is a dashing Colonel Fairfax and Janet Fairlie a comely Elsie Maynard. Sullivan's most gorgeous music generally deserves better singing all round, but no complaints about the band, under David Steadman.

As for the look of it (from designer Bruce French), the Gubbay budget runs to one turret of the Tower of London, a couple of squeaky drawbridges, and costumes that look like they might have been worn in the 1888 premiere. But that didn't sport a Jack Point like Barnhill. As he launches finally into that reprise of "I have a song to sing, O!", the only question left is: does he or does he not die of a broken heart at final curtain?

To 8 June (020-7836 8888)

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