The Mikado

Music by Arthur Sullivan, Lyrics by W. S. Gilbert
Carl Rosa Opera
Gielgud Theatre
(2008)

Alistair McGowan and Nichola McAuliffe

The Carl Rosa Company has taken up a five-week residency at the Gielgud leading off with a delightful version of what is arguably Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular classic, The Mikado, to be followed by Iolanthe (from 11 February) and The Pirates of Penzance (from 18 February).

The initial impression is that they have an unreasonable budget for such a short run (until 9 February). One might also get a feeling of déjà vu about this production and there is a good reason why. Carl Rosa have been lucky enough to get use of the colourful sets and costumes from Mike Leigh's homage to Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy.

This means that the stage is rather crammed, especially in the first half with a company of 28 having to squeeze themselves in between the beautiful flats, singing and dancing as they go. The borrowings also give not only authenticity in terms of period but also a nice Oriental aura.

Within this space, the company sings well, as one might expect, and, with a few commendable exceptions, acts like an opera ensemble. The good news is that their sense of fun never diminishes, both in making the most of William Schwenck Gilbert's witty lyrics but also pulling their own legs from time to time and updating the script to include contemporary references.

This element is at its best when the contrarily humane Lord High Executioner, Fenton Gray's Ko-Ko, reads his little list of those that will not be missed.

The audience roared as he streamed out references to the 2012 Olympics, boy bands, Chris Tarrant and best of all, a nameless Member of Parliament.

The play opened on the day when the news was announced of the suspension by David Cameron of the whip from one of his colleagues, who had better remain nameless.

This quick-witted company, one imagines courtesy of its artistic director Peter Mulloy, got in a pair of references to "MPs who should know shame when they employ all their relations". That brought down the house and deserved to.

The two nominal stars are both best known as actors. Alistair McGowan played the Mikado himself, complete with the memorable hat favoured by Timothy Spall in the Mike Leigh movie.

With a twinkle in his eye, once he made his belated appearance, the great man delighted the audience, particularly when it came to ensuring that the punishment would fit the crime. His major targets once again veered towards the modern, including misogynist rappers and football pundits.

While McGowan may not claim to be the world's finest singer, Nichola McAuliffe in the part of the disappointed, ageing Katisha revealed an attractive voice and, like McGowan, great acting skill.

However, both were outshone by somebody who was not even in the original programme. One imagines that Eric Roberts, a man who has adapted this piece for the company in the past, was unavailable to play the part of Ko-Ko. That might have been a big error, as the understudy who was shipped in to replace him, D'Oyly Carte regular Fenton Gray, was a sensation. His comic timing was perfect and he demonstrated acting brilliance that put some of his colleagues to shame.

This was a bravura performance that made an evening, that possibly did not need making anyway, such was the quality of the comedy and singing elsewhere.

The love interest was provided by Welshman Andrew Rees playing Nanki-Poo, a strolling minstrel with an attractive voice, who also just happens to be the Mikado's son and the target of his desire.

To add to princely woes, not only is the love of his life, one of those famous Three Little Maids from School, Charlotte Page's Yum-Yum, betrothed to Ko-Ko by the time that he gets to town but the disguised nobleman is pursued by the ageing, predatory Katisha the "daughter-in-law elect" to whom he has been promised by his father.

Quite what this handsome heir to the throne sees in the little maid one can't be certain, because while she is pretty, Yum-Yum is also incredibly vain and narcissistic. Strangely, on this occasion, what the two contrasting women have in common is an apparent desire to compete in a Joyce Grenfell sound-alike contest.

The comic twist is provided when a victim of execution is required and the debate begins as to whether this is a better or worse fate than having to marry Katisha.

The music is charming throughout, with many of the highlights in the second half. Charlotte Page is strong and at her very best in the solo The sun, whose rays are all ablaze, Andrew Rees gets a similar opportunity early on as A wand'ring minstrel I. The pair also get to sing a splendid trio with Koko, Here's a how-de-do! If I marry you.

As the story moves to a close, there is the double highlight as first Ko-Ko gives a delightful and very moving rendition of Willow, tit-willow immediately followed by what is always likely to be the most enjoyable song of the evening, There is beauty in the bellow of the blast when the same gentleman is joined up in a new coupling by his intended, Katisha.

In addition to those already named, Sophie-Louise Dann as Pitti-Sing and Bruce Graham in the schizophrenic role (including a very Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer) of the greedy but most amusing Lord High Everything Else, Pooh-bah have their musical highpoints.

This production will undoubtedly appeal to G & S aficionados but would also make a very pleasant introduction to their work for those who might be sceptical about good, old-fashioned operetta or just know nothing about the art form.

Philip Seager reviewed this production on tour in Sheffield and Gail-Nina Anderson reviewed it, with a slightly different cast, in Newcastle

Reviewer: Philip Fisher