FringeReview UK 2017
The Mikado’s 1885 spirit and language is preserved in Sasha Regan’s latest all-male Gilbert and Sullivan ensemble with this Regan De Wynter Williams Production. Ryan Dawson Laight’s set and costumes build on boy scouts with tents. Choreography’s by Holly Hughes, with Tim Deiling’s lighting. Will Keith directs Regan’s vision on tour; Richard Baker conducts at the piano stamping G&S on the ensemble.
Sasha Regan’s all-male Gilbert and Sullivan ensemble return with what must be the definitive, indeed the only way this wonderfully dodgy classic on the Japanese English can be realised in this latest Regan De Wynter Williams production. The Mikado’s 1885 spirit and language is preserved, mild updates to the Lord High Executioner’s little list manicured to Gilbert’s snappy, sarky 1885 original.
This is middle England. Ryan Dawson Laight’s set and costumes build on boy scouts with tents allowing for all sorts of exits, as we open in a glade and find clothing-pegs the trope of the night: as buttons and indeed bows in hair for the girls. Each twitch on the washing line’s a delight – we get four of those, since laundering in public is what this production does in cricket bats.
The opening chorus alone is a shaft of choreography by Holly Hughes, and from moonlight to a cod-Japanese noon Tim Deiling’s lighting renders a hallucinatory glare to the spectacle. Will Keith directs Regan’s vision on tour though it’s Richard Baker at the piano vigorously conducting who stamps G&S panache on the ensemble. His pianism’s exquisite: at just one point he allows himself a bluesy rendition of ‘The sun, whose rays..’ I wish he could have snuck in a few more.
The Mikado was never intended to be taken as even cod-Japanese though the Japanese didn’t see it that way. With names like Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo and Pooh-Bar not to mention Ko-Ko, we know it’s already a send-up of English Japanoiserie and subversively scatological – that Executioner’s list is a toilet roll on whose paper Nanki-Poo’s name is well, placed. But that self-parody’s as difficult to get across as say the send-ups of Verdi, Meyerbeer and others sprinkled throughout which sophisticated audiences got then. Performing tradition’s blunted Gilbert’s tetchy razor wit, and played straight The Mikado seems offensive. Not here.
There’s badinage as a bespectacled youth in pyjamas is ribbed by hearty fellow-scouts who snatch his cricket bat (ah, symbolism!). The opening chorus ‘if you want to know who we are’ erupts from this and we’re with Richard Munday’s Nanki-Poo with his ‘wandering minstrel’ guise, in love with Yum-Yum(Alan Richardson), thwarted by her betrothal to Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (David McKechnie) and hiding a little secret of his own involving The Mikado of Japan himself (James Waud, a seraphically late entrance) and his own resisted betrothal to Alex Weatherhill’s Charlie’s Aunt of a Katisha.
The plot-twists you’ll see for yourself and you must see this. The ensemble’s terrific and no-one’s miked. It helps there’s just a piano to accompany which Baker’s brio suggests is an orchestra, but these voices project with a catchy clarity and crystalline diction that both rescue and exalt G&S.
Yum-Yum’s Alan Richardson is outstanding, with a counter-tenor range that’s capable of baritonal farce. His big moment comes naturally in ‘The sun, whose rays..’ but he’s also funny, bashful, faux-feminine in an appealing not burlesque way. The whole troupe of ‘women’, particularly Jamie Jukes’ Pitti-Sing and Richard Russell-Edwards’ Peep-Bo (featuring in ‘three little maids’ enact fantastical stages of make-up, white-faced, permed or painfully wedged toes. Their hair alone raises laughter but their singing trounces it with another kind. Each gesture, each tableau is placed: thus when Katisha wishes to unveil Nanki-Poo’s identity she’s prevented by lines and lines of washing symbolically thrust in front of her. Weatherhill sizes his moments with a fantastically bamboo’d lampshade attached to his head.
Of the men, as it were, Pooh-Bah’s corrupted sleaze seems healthy and you ell for his exasperation as Lord high Everything but Executioner, Ross Finnie twittering and thrusting his hands for readies. David McKechnie’s Ko-Ko is like Richardson outstanding, the executioner who’d not hurt even a guinea-pig (his claims to practice on one don’t ring very true) cuts an incisive melancholy through the operetta; you sense this man’s always entrapped. His moment comes in faux-wooing Katisha in ‘Tit-willow’ but he’s everywhere superb. His ‘little lsit’ of those ‘who never would be missed’ is zestfuly, seamlessly updated to include a man with a scraggy beard. Pish-Tush, baritonal ironist is dispatched with élan by Benjamin Vivian-Jones like a wan though not worn civil servant. Munday’s Nanki-Poo is bright, ardent and comes across as burly and despite himself, rather aristocratic. His role’s particularly demanding and he scorches a little pathos as well as humour from his relatively straight role.
And how it ends is quietly magical as well as satisfying. This Mikado not only redefines but rescues the operetta from an edgy oblivion, where we could never lose the melodies, yet increasingly hesitate to stage the work. It’s back.