Lyrics: W S Gilbert
Music:Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director: John Savournin
Conductor: James Hendry
Choreographer: Phillip Aiden
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
The Mikado is regarded by many as the jewel in the Gilbert &Sullivan crown; the best and most original of the Savoy Operas. That much is up for debate – G&S aficionados will argue long into any given night for their own particular favourite. Two other fine examples of the Oeuvre in HMS Pinafore and The Gondoliers feature at every stop on this 2015 UK tour of The National Gilbert &Sullivan Company, so at each venue around the country there is plenty to entertain both the Savoy fanatic and the as yet uninitiated. What is certainly beyond doubt, is that this vibrant and talented company give ample proof of the enduring appeal of G&S with a brilliant revival of a much-loved piece. The familiar fusion of words and music produces a whole that is even greater than the sum of its inestimable parts.
Coming into Darlington’s beautiful Civic Theatre from a chilly early evening, audience members are transported to the Japanese city of Titipu, where unfolded a love triangle in an Oriental setting that is unmistakably also a satirical poke at many English institutions already long-established when The Mikado first saw light of day in 1885. Any stage work which has survived so well over 130 years will have had the odd tweak here and there, to “keep it fresh” – but here is a brilliant demonstration that the original values can be retained, with a few artfully-added topical references, to charm and captivate the 21st century theatregoer.
The story of the love affair between our hero Nanki-Poo and his sweetheart Yum-Yum is told against a background of the need for the local headsman, Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, to practice his art in accordance with the Emperor’s wishes, and lop off some miscreant’s head – or see the proud city of Titipu reduced to the rank of a village. Ko-Ko’s squeamishness when called upon to act professionally, together with the fact that he intends to marry his ward Yum-Yum himself, provides the necessary plot; all else is riotous comedy from Gilbert’s witty pen, consummate choreography as per that gentleman’s own meticulous demands – and the wonderful music of Sir Arthur Sullivan including at least one of his very finest melodies in The Sun Whose Rays, beautifully performed by Claire Lees who made a demure and entrancing Yum-Yum. She was ably supported by her two fellow “little maids from school”; the alluring Pitti-Sing, in particular, was beautifully represented by Nichola Jolley, who brings out the pert mischief of her character in true Gilbertian style. Una McMahon as Peep-Bo completes a ravishing trio replete with girlish glee.
Playing opposite our heroine Yum-Yum, Robin Bailey as Nanki-Poo made a tall and handsome Emperor’s son disguised as a lowly strolling player; his fine voice combining well in duets between the troubled lovers, as well as soaring away on its own when required. The need for quality singers in the two romantic leads is something that occasionally lets down less accomplished productions; there was absolutely nothing at all lacking in that respect here. Romantic angst was offset by comic relief in the shape of Bruce Graham’s wonderfully pompous and self-serving fallen aristocrat, Pooh-Bah, and fellow Noble Lord Pish-Tush, effectively portrayed by Kevin Greenlaw. For a telling cameo display of comedy and fine baritone singing, complete with a chilling despot’s laugh, look no further than the contribution of Donald Maxwell as the eponymous Mikado – the Emperor of Japan. He is ably supported by the fearsomely bloodthirsty Katisha, his elderly daughter-in-law elect, commandingly performed by Amy J Payne.
The evening’s honours, though, undoubtedly goes to Richard Gauntlett who gives a bravura performance in the pivotal character of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner himself. This is one of the great “patter parts” – so called because of the traditionally verbose songs allocated to the Savoy’s comedy leads – and Gauntlett gets every atom of humour out of that wonderful character, with his distinctive accent, impeccable comic timing and nimble physicality. This was a Ko-Ko par excellence – ranging from the brilliantly funny and topically updated ‘As Some Day It May Happen’ – the “Little List” song – to a beautifully rendered and tenderly poignant ‘Tit Willow’. Ko-Ko is the mortar that holds the edifice of The Mikado together – and Richard Gauntlett surpassed all possible expectations in a performance worthy of many an immortal “patter man” down the years. His trio with Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo Here’s a How-de-do (with its thoroughly merited encores), was well worth a long journey to witness.
With the extremely able support of a well-drilled and musically proficient chorus of nobles, coolies, guards, schoolgirls and ladies, this production shines from start to finish. The chorus members are sure-footed and note-perfect, which is exactly what Gilbert and Sullivan themselves always demanded; the two masters would have been hard-put to find any fault in this interpretation of their masterpiece. The Savoy Operas are a veritable institution and the fact that they have been performed in three separate centuries and are still thriving today, is a tribute to all those responsible for their production, since the originators handed over the baton more than a hundred years ago. The spectacle of The Mikado, with the musical feast provided by the singers on stage and the internationally respected National Festival Orchestra in the pit is a treat not to be missed, whether you are a long-standing devotee of G&S, or someone yet to discover the magic of the Savoy repertoire.
As the Mikado himself so succinctly put it: “Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory”.
Runs Until: 19 September, then touring.