Music: Arthur Sullivan
Book and Lyrics: W. S. Gilbert
Director: John Savournin
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas can, in some productions, be susceptible to the same fate as Shakespeare’s comedies: produced with such reverent banality that all sense of humour blanches away, leaving nothing but dull, starchy worthiness.
How refreshing, then, to find in the King’s Head a production of The Mikado which reminds one of the rich vein of satirical humour the duo injected into their tale, resulting in a production which is brimful of laughs while never sacrificing its heightened romantic storyline.
The operetta’s original Japanese setting was a highly fictionalised one, sating Victorian London’s desires for content from “the Orient” while also allowing a puncturing of the British political classes. Charles Court Opera’s production retains the latter element, relocating events to a 1930s-era “British Consulate of Titipu” whose panelled walls and Chesterfield sofas suggest it might as well be in a Whitehall gentleman’s club.
By relocating events into a single room, the reduced cast also works, the opera’s opening scenes in a bustling village reduced to three men in double-breasted suits and brandishing glasses of whiskey as if deadly weapons. On the other hand, the introduction of Yum-Yum and her fellow wards Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo as Blytonesque pinafore-wearing schoolgirls is a little too on the nose.
But a scene setting would be for naught if the voices were not up to the task. Alys Roberts is a delightful Yum-Yum, her soprano trill used to great effect, and works especially effectively in combination with the romantic tenor of Jack Roberts’s Nanki-Poo.
While the young lovers’ storyline is the romantic driver of the whole plot, of course, it is Yum-Yum’s other suitor, the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, who gets the majority of stage time and the lion’s share of the show’s humour. As has become traditional, the “little list” song ‘As Some Day It May Happen’ is completely rewritten to reflect modern times; among those who never will be missed currently include MPs of all sides, millennials and other satisfyingly easy targets. It’s an adept rewrite which Philip Lee delivers with unctuous charm. Indeed, Lee is the highlight of the production, ensuring that Ko-Ko is a sympathetic, affectionately pitiable character.
Perhaps the biggest casting change is the transformation of Katisha, the elderly woman who seeks Nanki-Poo’s hand in marriage, as a drag character. Matthew Siveter’s portrayal is sharply observed and played, and the gender reversal makes the continued comments about her perceived lack of good looks a little more palatable for modern tastes.
As events spiral out of control, director John Savournin keeps a firm hand on the play’s moments of farce, making full use of the King’s Head space, which is reconfigured into a thrust stage for this production. And while strong support from Matthew Kellet’s Pooh-Bah and Jessica Temple’s Pitti-Sing helps ensure the production’s comedic performances impress throughout, the real star of the show must surely be musical director David Eaton, who succeeds in delivering the fast-paced and lyrical score in solo piano form with such dexterity that one quite forgets that we are not watching a fully orchestrated production.
For anyone who has doubts about whether they will enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan, Charles Court Opera’s production will provide both an entertaining introduction to the genre, while instilling in newcomers expectations which larger scale productions would do well to match. For old hands, too, there is much to enjoy: not least, that one does not require the full size of the D’Oyly Carte Company to produce a classic with such enjoyable virtuosity.
Runs until 21 April 2018 | Image: Bill Knight