The Mikado

Date 1st May 2015
Society South Manchester AOS
Venue Royal Northern College of Music
Type of Production Musical
Director Eleanor Ford
Musical Director Cillian Donaghy
Choreographer Sally Ballantyne

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Author: David Slater

An interesting game to to play if you ever find yourself in the company of a couple of G&S fans (and have a couple of hours to spare!) is to ask them which is the best of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. A show which would inevitably be high up on anyone's list of favourites, 'The Mikado' is rightly considered one of Gilbert and Sullivan's masterpieces and has been a popular part of the cultural landscape for well over a century. It was an instant hit when it was first produced in 1885 and has been a mainstay of the stage repertoire ever since. It isn't difficult to see why: a stream of wonderful music flows through the piece from start to finish; it features some of Gilbert's most inspired characters; the plot is as beautifully crafted, intricately worked - and as full of surprises - as a Faberge egg... I could go on. In many ways, 'The Mikado' stands out as something of an anomaly in the G&S canon as it is very different in feel from many of their other works: the sense of fun, the 'pure theatre' of the piece and the playful nature of the whole show help to disguise some of Gilbert's grimmest and most bloodthirsty images. After all, this is a show where the threat of a range of really nasty tortures - and the certainty of a cruel and arbitrary execution - hang over the heads of most of the characters throughout the opera: such is the beauty of the writing and the cleverness of the show's construction that the audience takes all of this in its stride.

There is an unfortunate tendency amongst Savoyards to consider any production which deviates even slightly from the D'Oyly Carte blueprint as a terrible blasphemy (or to heap calumnies onto a production which wasn't done in exactly the same way as one they appeared in 20 years ago and which of course couldn't be bettered!) SMAOS risked the anger of the G&S purists with a modern-day setting in the RNCM's Studio Theatre and I approached the production with a keen sense of anticipation. As far as I'm concerned, the inbuilt negative reaction to any G&S production which may be slightly different in approach than the D'Oyly Carte's is simply foolish: as with any show, there are simply productions that 'work' and productions that don't. In any case, the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan are so good as to be bulletproof and can shrug off any number of wonky interpretations, marching on unscathed for many more years to come. Fortunately, The SMAOS 'Mikado' was a resounding success and made for a great evening's entertainment, cocking a snook at the doubters and purists by sending a happy audience away into the night, myself and Stuart included.

A rousing overture played as the audience was given the chance to appreciate the attractively lighting and scenery which made good use of the performance space in the studio theatre. A really very pleasing backdrop of artistically lit folded paper and origami birds, along with an array of paper lanterns, gave a pleasant flavour of the Orient. This being a contemporary setting, our Gentlemen of Japan marched on stage suited and booted in a nice range of snappy and colourful outfits, giving a strong vocal display - and not a body mic in sight. I'm not sure I would have had Pooh Bah enter along with the men in the opening number however (such a pompous dignitary surely deserved his own entrance, aloof and supercilious, quite separate from the oi polloi?!) but that's just a matter of personal taste.

One of the most refreshing things about this production was the youthful nature of the cast. It really was great to see so many young performers making such a good job of bringing Gilbert's characters to life in a production which was true to the script, the score and the feel of the piece - and without feeling the need to inflict the abomination that is 'The Hot Mikado' on a unsuspecting public!

The talented cast brought a real sense of fun to the proceedings and made the show feel fresh and energetic. Nanki-Poo was played with charm and grace by Ryan Hunt whose fine tenor voice made easy work of the many lyrical passages in the score and had a personality which really suited the character. Sam McVaigh brought an oleaginous hauteur to the role of Pooh-Bah which was much appreciated and again, was in fine voice throughout, with Patrick Massey bringing a more delicate edge to the role of Pish-Tush, some particularly fine singing helping to round off this often overlooked character. In fact, for my money, Pish-Tush has the best song in the show ('Our Great Mikado, Virtuous Man...') and Patrick brought something different to the song, which was interesting.

In many ways of course, the Mikado is very much Ko-Ko's show and fortunately, we were in safe hands with Wayne Holt's interpretation which was solid and dependable and gratifyingly, eschewed a lot of the silly 'business' - the by now rather overdone 'entrance by scooter' excepted! - which is sometimes associated with a Ko-Ko performance. The superbly rewritten 'Little List' really hit the spot too. Wayne kept things grounded, which suited both his interpretation of the character and which fitted in well will the overall sweep of the production. Ko-Ko is a character who needs to elicit the sympathy of the audience; balancing the comedy of the role with Ko-Ko's potential for mischievous wiliness and the need for Ko-Ko to effectively be the audience's guide through the opera. This was something Wayne got just right: many congratulations.

But what of those legendary Three Little Maids I hear you cry?! Emily Barton was a confident Yum-Yum, again, strong of voice and an engaging presence on stage. Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo made a sparky pairing and I particularly enjoyed Emily's take on the Act Two revelation that she could end up buried alive - her shift in attitude toward her erstwhile love Nanki-Poo was very well done. Pitti-Sing had a real sparkle as played by Sarah Peach and contrasting nicely was the sulky Peep-Bo, marvellously played by Sarah Phillips. It's always great to see a wonderful performance where you least expect it: Peep-Bo is something of an under-written character in the opera but Sarah made the role her own in a brilliant performance and was one of the stars of the night for me.

There was very strong work from the chorus thought the show: vocally strong, fleet of foot and with that special something missing from so many lesser productions - namely a cast who actually look like they're enjoying themselves! Everyone was well kitted-out in costumes which were appropriate to the contemporary theme and not once did I find myself yearning for the swish of a kimono or the snap of a fan.

The opera's 'big guns', (if you'll forgive the expression!) villainous Katisha and the great Mikado himself were played with varying degrees of success by Celia McGoldrick and Andy Pilkington. Celia was superb as a sulky 'goth' Katisha, really grabbing the part with both hands and creating a memorable character. I think it's important that the audience see Katisha as not just a pantomime villain - 'The Hour of Gladness' in the Act One finale helping us to understand that this is a real human being after all and not just a cardboard cut-out 'baddie' - and both Celia and director Eleanor Ford clearly understood this. Katisha was a real winner. I must say, her dialogue took a bit of warming to in Act Two (that sulky sing-song tone was a little jarring at first) but I got there in the end! I was less convinced with Andy Pilkington's Mikado however: I wasn't sure in which direction the character was being steered. Initially, I thought there was going to be a touch of the 'Russell Brand' about this characterisation of the mighty Mikado - particularly as the ensemble seemed to lapse into cockney accents for some unfathomable reason upon his arrival - but this wasn't followed through in the performance. His list of potential victims for whom the punishment should fit the crime was, like Ko-Ko's, updated but unlike Ko-Ko's seemed to veer between the odd and the inaudible. As a result, I was left with the feeling that the all-powerful Mikado was actually something of a damp squib.

While in a critical mood, I was more than a little miffed that the recitatives had been axed in favour of having the lyrics spoken rather than sung, the music being dumped altogether. I couldn't really grasp what was being gained by this other than to lose some of my favourite music in the show (the couple of recits at the beginning of the first act have some beautiful little passages) since having the same information spoken rather than sung saved nothing other than leaving a musical hole - admittedly only a small one, but still... I did also wonder if more could have been made of the different levels on stage. The cleverly constructed set made much of the performance space but I thought it was perhaps a little underused.

There were however many more highlights than lowlights in this production. Some super choreography from Sally Ballantyne throughout the show created some memorable scenes (I even hear tell there was such a thing as 'twerking' in some of the routines but as I wouldn't recognise a 'twerk' if I fell over one, I shall take Sally's word for it!) Music was in the more than capable hands of Cillian Donaghy who kept a good pace throughout the evening. As you will never get two G&S diehards to agree on the 'correct' speed for any of the music in any Gilbert and Sullivan opera, I can report that at no point did I consider the music 'too quick' or 'too slow' - well done Cillian! Particular personal highlights other than the ones already mentioned include: the Act One trio for Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush which was very well done; the Act One finale worked very well in the performance space; Act Two rattled along at a really gratifying pace without dipping or slacking; Ko-Ko and Katisha's 'Tit Willow' and Beauty in the Bellow...' were both quite excellent; the Act Two finale was imaginative and worked well to end the show... I could mention may more highlights but suffice to say that the production taken as a whole was a thoroughly enjoyable and intelligent take on the classic comic opera - my thanks go to all concerned.

Here was a production which was a perfect example of polishing up an old classic without spoiling its original grandeur and hopefully, an inspiration to other societies to tackle a G&S with imagination and flair too. My thanks again to everyone at SMAOS for a great evening and for making myself and Stuart to very welcome.