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Infectious and Delirious: The Mikado

28 October 2016

The Mikado

by WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

Hounslow Light Opera Company

at Hampton Hill Theatre until 29th October 2016

Review by Georgia Renwick

 

hloc-mikado

Johanna Chambers as Yum Yum and Kurt Walton as Nanki Poo

Hounslow Light Opera Company has justly earned itself a loyal following in the South West London theatre community, for consistently energetic and enjoyable performances. HLOC’s 2003 production of The Mikado marked the company’s 100th anniversary and thirteen years later, the infectious smiles and delirious applause in the house tonight left in little doubt that this is a very welcome return of the G&S classic.

 

As one of the most widely performed musical theatre pieces in history, it takes an inspired team to create a production that stands out against the melee. Helen Smith, reprising her role as director from 2003 (this is the fifth Mikado she has been involved with in total), has gathered a cast with both vocal and comic talents, and added some delightful touches all of her own to create a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable production.

The key to the popularity and endurance of The Mikado is found in its delightful sending up of British Victorian society and its institutions.  By setting The Mikado in his own fantasy version of Japan, which resembles the country in virtually no aspect but for the aesthetic, Gilbert could disguise his social and political satire as Japanese, satisfying the censors and delighting his audiences.

The first satirical fiction of the piece serves as a key plot point; Japan has never to this day had a law against flirting, but it is for this crime that Ko-Ko is condemned to death. Ko-Ko, played with an ‘artful-dodger-esque’ cheekiness and glee by Tony Cotterill, has however recently been promoted to the role of Lord High Executioner.  It is an operatic tradition that Ko-Ko’s “little list” of whom he would rather were on the block in his stead grows each time.  This hilarious rendition sees Facebook, rappers, and a host of political figures (hint: two rhyme with ‘Barrage’ and ‘Thump’) who’ll “none of ‘em be missed” end up on the list.

Unfortunately for Ko-Ko, the Mikado (superbly realised by Clare Henderson Roe as a bloodthirsty bureaucrat in boots and a swishing kimono, a perfect casting choice) won’t be satisfied until there is an execution ‘within a month’. Seeing as he cannot cut his own head off (at least, he reasons, it would be “an extremely difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt”) he must find a substitute to avoid his own demise.  Enter Nanki-Poo (Kurt Walton), a wandering minstrel with a secret identity, who resolves to kill himself after finding the women he loves, Yum-Yum (Johanna Chambers), is to be married to Ko-Ko, her guardian, that very day.  Walton makes for an endearing and earnest young tenor to Chambers’ beautiful soprano.  Chambers’ vocal abilities command the stage, which coupled with her natural movement and comic timing make for a captivating and playful performance of this central romance.  Could Nanki-Poo be the substitute Ko-Ko is looking for?  Unbeknown to Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo is the runaway son of the Mikado, betrothed to Katisha (Elizabeth Chambers) and she’s on her way to find him …

As the trickery and deception mount, hilarity ensues, and the supporting cast bring each moment of it out with aplomb. Paul Huggins’ rendition of Pooh-Bah, whose stack of business cards denotes him an authority on pretty much every aspect of government, is a cartoonish caricature of sneering imperialism.  Although he lifts himself above all others with his long list of titles, he must grudgingly rely on those beneath him to save his neck from the block.  Patrick Hooper’s comic timing as Pish-Tush (the only member of the cast to be reviving his role from the HLOC’s 2003 production) also triggered ripples of laughter, supported by the energetic male chorus.

The Titipu Academy for Young Ladies was delightfully realised on stage by ten lovely ladies, some of whom the programme notes, were delighted to be welcomed back as “Alumni”. Pitti-Sing’s (Lindsey Anne Cumming) and Peep-Bo’s (Philippa Mukherjee) eyes burst with girlish enthusiasm in the enchanting “Three Little Maids from School”, and indeed the whole chorus moves beautifully together on stage, the costume design (managed by Veronica Martin) coming into its own in these scenes with brightly coloured kimonos swishing this way and that.  The fan dance in Act 2 is truly mesmerising.  Elizabeth Chambers’ rendition of contralto Katisha is another standout performance.  Here, perhaps the costume and make-up could have been more exaggerated to really bring out the comedy of Katisha’s advanced years, her performance actually drew a great deal sympathy from myself personally.

Lingering beneath the many laughs, The Mikado offers some piercing insights into our state’s bureaucracy.  In its title character, the “virtuous women”, despite her unflinching, business-like treatment of the torture and death of her subjects, we can see a clear hypocrisy.  We might ask ourselves to what extent our politics has changed in 130 years.

Meanwhile, down in the orchestra pit, history is being made by musical director (and sole instrumentalist) Lee Dewsnap. Faced with the choice of one or two instrumentalists… or a whole orchestra performed by one player, Helen and the company took a risk and set Lee to the task of arranging the original score for the Yamaha EL-900 Electric Organ, and then playing it live.  Hundreds of hours and dozens of instruments later, it is a risk that I personally believe paid off.  As far as we (and Lee) know, his accomplishment of arranging and performing a G&S score in this progressive way is a feat never seen live before, and one that made this production of the world-famous Mikado not only memorable and enjoyable, but truly unique.

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