Composers and Writers: WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Director: John Savournin
Musical Director: David Eaton
Charles Court Opera’s The Mikado is a real cracker. Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, the production has no chorus and no orchestra, but nonetheless radiates joy with its musical energy and wit. All of the cast of seven are strong singers and excellent actors.
Recently there’s been some pushback against The Mikado’s Japanese setting, particularly in the US where the Asian-American community have argued it presents orientalist stereotyping. Recent American productions have attended to this, one setting the work in Renaissance-era Milan and another in Scotland. The Charles Court Opera’s feisty and completely effective solution is to point up Gilbert and Sullivan’s obvious satire of pompous nineteenth-century English society. We’re still in Japan, but now the central characters are diplomats in a British Consulate. The Mikado himself, of course, remains Japanese. Natty renaming turns Pish-Tush into Peter Rush, Nanki-Poo into Charles Chauncey Drew and Ko-Ko, the current Lord High Executioner, is now Colin Cole. Yum-Yum, leader of the Three Little Maids and main love interest in the plot, has become Victoria Plum.
The set, necessarily minimal in the modest acting area of the Arcola, suggests a nineteenth-century male-only club with a chesterfield and tray of drinks. Director and artistic director John Savournin plays both the Mikado and Peter Rush (Matthew Palmer takes the roles on other dates). With his height, his powerful baritone voice, perfect enunciation and witty eyebrows, he is a born G&S performer. So is Matthew Siveter, a regular principal with The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company. He is a natural comedian, making him a fabulous Hugh Barr. Matthew Kellett has brilliant comic timing as Koko/Colin Cole. Ko-Ko’s lowly status as a tailor’s son is transmuted into the wide- boy cheek of Colin Cole.
Star performer is Robin Bailey as Chauncey Drew, a glorious tenor with an extraordinarily expressive face. He is particularly good in the madrigal ‘Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day’ when he switches from from ecstasy to moodiness every time the refrain reminds him of his impending death. Alys Roberts makes a perfect Yum-Yum/Victoria Plum. With her sweet soprano and cheeky expressions, she is completely convincing as a school girl. Mezzo Meriel Cunningham is hilarious as her side-kick, Milly King.
The entrance of spurned Katisha, the self-styled Daughter-in-Law Elect to the Mikado, gives a refreshing frisson to the opera after all this sweetness. Amy J. Payne struts on in military uniform, like Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull, to claim Drew/Nanki-Poo as her intended. Her lovely versatile contralto voice both commands and moves. She and Kellett create a memorable comic scene as Cole woos her with his tale of Tit-Willow, followed by the stirring ‘There is beauty in the bellow of the blast’ as he chases her round the chesterfield.
A splendid production.
Runs until 23 September 2023