Sasha Regan’s All-Male The Mikado (Richmond Theatre, until May 27th and touring)
The line that so many have been itching to say about one of Sasha Regan’s brilliant all male versions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas has finally arrived: the latest production of The Mikado is as camp as a row of tents.
Once again, this spin on a G&S favourite (we’ve already been treated to Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore from the same team) is as manly and macho as an Old Spice advert – but the set is, literally, a row of tents.
If last year’s Pinafore touched on the tragic and melancholic with the show being performed by a group of soldiers looking for some light relief in the darkness of war, this production owes more to the wizard wheezes of Billy Bunter and Enid Blyton. It may well be subtitled “The Famous Five have jolly japes in Japan” for here the setting is a group of schoolboys making merry with The Mikado during a forest camping trip, which gives the opera’s dark themes an even more comic slant.
If there is any kind of underlying theme, Regan’s direction and Holly Hughes’ beautiful choreography at the beginning and end may suggest young people dreaming dreams and fulfilling wishes, but we really don’t need to know the reason for the setting when the production is so crisp and so effortlessly enjoyable. G&S never set any of their works away from England to poke fun at the country where the scene was set, a thinly veiled excuse to lampoon grown-up British society and political life all the more waspishly, and using a supposed group of British schoolboys to perform this version only adds to the sense of satire.
It is as catchy as we expect from this talented company, and there is a zest and energy that breathes new life into this Savoy Opera favourite. We have seen many of the performers before in past shows, so a high standard is guaranteed, but we can still be wowed by the extraordinary abilities of those delivering breathtaking falsettos and the overall feelgood lightness of touch.
What is particularly striking about this production is the ease with which the audience can hear Gilbert’s lyrics. There’s not even a sliver of wit lost by any of the performers, which leads to an even greater appreciation of the songs.
There’s not a dud performance from the 16-strong company, directed from the piano by a chirpy Richard Baker, giving each piece dramatic measure and zippy energy. Sasha Regan allows the cast to develop their own ideas in rehearsals, enabling each actor to work on their own character, so the audience is constantly looking around and seeing everyone working rather than just standing about to contribute as chorus when required. This surely means the members feel they own their characters intensely, giving the whole a real heart.
As ever there are some real joys in individual casting. It’s good to see Alex Weatherhill back giving some emotional depth to the usually spiteful Katisha (there’s a tenderness to “Alone and yet alive”), though Steve Pemberton may well be seeking some recompense as the character looks for all the world like Tubbs from League of Gentlemen.
The “girls” fare especially well in this production: Alan Richardson is glorious again as a rather cheeky Yum-Yum, and “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” is an unmissable gem, albeit sung without losing any of the irony; there’s delicious support from Jamie Jukes as Pitti-Sing and Richard Russell Edwards as Peep-Bo; and there’s an inspired and hilarious beauty parlour opening to Act 2 with “Braid the raven hair.”
The strength of the “feminine” contingent actually makes it all the harder for the leading male characters, yet each manages admirably: James Waud’s towering magisterial Mikado is sung with a sparkling rich authority; David McKechnie’s Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko – complete with “little list” on a loo roll – has an infectious energy and his “On a tree by a river” wooing of Katisha is touching; Ross Finnie’s Lord High Everything Else Pooh-Bah is enormous fun; Richard Munday’s affable wand’ring minstrel Nanki-Poo is a good fit with Yum-Yum (one can only dare to imagine what a naughty couple they would become!); and Benjamin Vivian-Jones beefs up the part of Pish-Tush excellently.
There’s a distinct Midsummer Night’s Dream quality to this confection, which is always inventive and the magic never lulls. There is always something daring about Sasha Regan’s G&S productions that never allows them to be comfortable, yet showcases the material and the company with undisguised admiration and creative aplomb.
Picture, Stewart McPherson