Pros: A silly, entertaining, and fun night out with an amazing cast.
Cons: Nonsensical at times, with jokes that fly over a modern audience’s head.
500 meters from it’s original home at The Savoy Theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most successful operetta The Mikado is enjoying a spirited revival. A strong cast, excellent choreography from Joey McKneely, and catchy tunes make this a fun and extremely silly night out. As I am limited to only a few hundred words, my best advice is that you Google the plot. It is paper thin, and the story doesn’t really get going until the epic Act I finale. However all the tropes of pantomimic British theatre are at play – young lovers, pompous buffoons, wicked women, and despotic leaders – and in true Gilbert and Sullivan style, every single one of them is made fun of.
The Mikado is set in a fictional time and place. Nominally this is Japan and set designer Philip Lindley, and costume designer Jonathan Lipman both make nods to this with parasols and fans in liberal use. However, the writers wished to critique the stuffy and uptight Victorian England in which they were living and so set The Mikado elsewhere to make this easier. This production attempted to convey this ambiguity by adding a 1920s flapper aesthetic in and amongst the Japanese decor. The difficulty with this, however, is that although it is very pleasing to look at, it did feel a little confused. It is true that in the past The Mikado has been accused of cultural appropriation, and there is no doubt that the silly names (Nanki-Poo, Pish-Tush, Yum-Yum) and the pseudo-Japanese speech don’t sit easily with a modern audience. But by setting the action half in and half out, we are never quite sure where we are.
To add to this confusion there is an absurdity throughout which at times is very funny, but sometimes is just downright weird. One of the biggest notes I made during the performance was ‘this makes no bloody sense.’ For example, one of the delights in The Mikado is the opportunity for directors to alter the lyrics to reflect present day events, and Thom Southerland exploits this very comically. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, has a ‘little list’ detailing all those whom he is planning to kill: people who stop in the middle of the street to text, Nigel Farage, in fact, any politician, is on his list. This gives the play a zingy, modern feel, but then we are quickly back to pseudo-Japan where one can be executed for flirting.
All madness aside (and there is a lot of madness) the cast were absolutely stonking. Jacob Chapman as Pish-Tush, Huge Osborne as Ko-Ko, and Steve Watts playing Pooh-Bah were a thoroughly enjoyable trio, guiding us through most of the play. The young lovers played by Leigh Coggins as Yum-Yum and Matthew Crowe as the indefatigable Nanki-Poo sang beautifully, The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze being a particular highlight. The avuncular but somewhat bloodthirsty Mikado is played to great effect by Mark Heenehan with his booming bass-baritone. Special kudos to Dean Austin and Noam Galperin for their faultless piano accompaniment.
Unquestionably however, the highlight of this play is a barnstorming performance from Rebecca Caine, whose Katisha, with her ‘caricature of a face’ steals the show. Genuinely devastated at having been jilted by Naki-Poo, she swears revenge and assumes as much right to order people around as the Mikado himself, much to his chagrin. Her tragedy comes through when she asks us ‘who knows as well as I do that no-one yet died of a broken heart?’ But she is hugely comical when she settles on Ko-Ko to be her husband, and asks if he won’t mind if she’s ‘just a tiny bit blood thirsty?’
My feeling is that the excellent cast and production team did the best with what they had. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are unquestionably enjoyable. The songs are catchy and the libretto is keen as mustard. However, the institutes and figures whom they were critiquing are somewhat lost on us now, and many of the jokes go over our heads. It is not for everyone, but if you enjoy light operetta and don’t want to think too much then you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable time.
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Libretto: W. S. Gilbert
Director: Thom Southerland
Choreographer: Joey McKneely
Musical director: Dean Austin
Producers: Steven M. Levy and Sean Sweeney
Booking until: 3 January 2015