Friday 22 September 2023

A terrific sense of relish: Charles Court Opera's new version of The Mikado delights at the Arcola Theatre

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado - Charles Court Opera (Photo: Bill Knight)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado - Charles Court Opera (Photo: Bill Knight)

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado; Matthew Palmer, Robin Bailey, Matthew Kellett, Matthew Siveter, Alys Roberts, Meriel Cunningham, Jennifer Clark, Amy J Payne, director: John Savournin, musical director: David Eaton; Charles Court Opera at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed 20 September 2023

Gilbert & Sullivan's classic delivered with consummate skill and artistry, great pacing and a terrific sense of relish, in a new setting bringing out the innate Englishness of the work

For an operetta, The Mikado is quite a complex, multi-layered piece and part of the work's endurance comes from the fact that all the pieces fit. There is no sense, as there can be with The Gondoliers, of two different works playing simultaneously. At the core of The Mikado is Gilbert's usual topsy-turvey-dom, here a condemned criminal placed as Lord High Executioner to foil the the Mikado's cruel edict, and the Mikado's son disguised as a second trombone. The satire is of English society, but shot through with terrific characters who are comic yet essential to the plot. This is all overlaid with a Japanese setting inspired by the recent fashion for things Japanese. Then there is the fascinating Pirandellian element, the chorus knows that they are only playing characters 'We are gentlemen of Japan'.

Different productions have emphasised different layers, so that New Sadlers Wells Opera's 1986 production was set in the Oriental department of Liberty, the hub of that original fashion for things Japanese, whilst Jonathan Miller's production for ENO honed in on the Englishness with its 1930s Grand Hotel and tap-dancing bell boys.

For his production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado for Charles Court Opera, director John Savournin has chosen to focus on the English satire. The setting is still Japan, but post-World War Two with British diplomats in the province of Totori, with the Mikado becoming the governor-general of Japan. We caught up with the production at the Arcola Theatre on 20 September 2023, Matthew Palmer was the Mikado and Peter Rush (Pish Tush), Robin Bailey was Charles Chauncey (Nanki Poo), Matthew Kellett was Colin Cole (Koko), Matthew Siveter was Hugh Barr (Poo Bah), Alys Roberts was Victoria Plum (Yum Yum), Meriel Cunningham was Milly King (Pitti Sing), Jennifer Clark was Pip Bow (Peep Bow) and Amy J Payne was Katisha, with the accompaniment played on the piano by David Eaton. Designs were by Rachel Szmukler, lighting by Rachel E Cleary and choreography by Damian Czarnecki.

Charles Court Opera specialises in performing Gilbert & Sullivan on a small scale, the entire opera was sung by eight people with soloists singing chorus parts too. Such was the skill of the performers and the balanced nature of the cast that, in this studio theatre, you never thought anything was missing. The results were immediately engaging and arresting, the whole cast delivering both Sullivan's musical lines and Gilbert's words with aplomb. This performance was a simple pleasure to listen to vocally. 

There was no overture, we plunged straight into the first chorus and for the whole evening, David Eaton did a terrific job boiling Sullivan's score down to one piano, though it was a shame that Arcola Theatre's instrument wasn't of better quality, and I will be quite frank that I did rather miss Sullivan's orchestrations.

The new setting worked surprisingly well. The narrative logic was not completely perfect, but we don't really expect that in G&S do we? For much of the first scene, where Charles Chauncey (Nanki Poo) is dealing with Charles Chauncey (Nanki Poo), Hugh Barr (Poo Bah), Peter Rush (Pish Tush) and Colin Cole (Koko), the work played out rather like an episode of Yes Minister and Gilbert's demented logic worked wonderfully, making clear the Englishness of the satire.

But what really made the performance work was the sheer quality of the individual performers and their fine sense of ensemble. Robin Bailey made a lyrically engaging Charles Chauncey (Nanki Poo) with Matthew Siveter channelling many a civil servant as the pompous Hugh Barr (Poo Bah) with a sense of devastating understatement. Matthew Kellett played Colin Cole (Koko) with something of a demotic accent and far more charm than is often the case in this role. His 'little list' was very much modern and updated, and he had a nice way of seeming to chat directly to the audience. Matthew Palmer was a suave Peter Rush (Pish Tush) in the first half and then reappeared as the very epitome of an English general as the Mikado. Palmer delivered his solo about crime and punishment with amusing understatement, making him less demented than usual.

Alys Roberts made a poised, self-possessed Victoria Plum (Yum Yum) and her two companions, Meriel Cunningham and Jennifer Clark both blended with her beautifully in the trio, whilst each created a very strong individual character as the drama proceeded. Amy J Payne's Katisha was fierce, upstaging Matthew Palmer's Mikado in completely cavalier fashion, but the production successfully negotiated the trickier aspects of the role, the word 'elderly' never appeared.

This was an evening of G&S delivered with consummate skill and artistry, great pacing and a terrific sense of relish. I still missed the Japonaiserie and the original names, but the new setting proved surprisingly apt and engaging.

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