The Mikado

W S Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan
Charles Court Opera
Rosemary Branch Theatre
(2011)

The Mikado publicity image

This pared down Mikado is a delight. With a cast of nine and David Eaton on piano this tale of thwarted love that finally triumphs, a wandering minstrel who turns out to be the Mikado's only son in disguise, and a ruler keen on executions who wants to 'make the punishment fit the crime' really sparkles, with nothing wasted.

Designer Gregor Donnelly uses the theatre's black walls, places a baby grand in full view centre rear, flanked it with a couple of plain white panels, sometimes rear-lit red, and gives the cast a set of those ubiquitous fringe theatre boxes to move around. I know I usually moan about them, but somehow painted bright red and never pretending to be anything else they seem just what is needed. Indeed with some big heads (literally not metaphorically) in front of me they raise the actors a couple of feet so that even short-arses like me can see them.

In fact, this is the red-black-and-white show - the general look is decidedly Western, sort of early 1920s, the men in suits, soft-collars turned to look like winged ones, waistcoats and bow-ties. The "three little maids from school" who add splashes of different colour at first seem to be in gymslips though on closer inspection they turn out to be rather stylish short-trousered dungarees.

The piano arrangement supports the singers, all in fine voice, and the familiar numbers come over musically and comically in John Savournin's production which is full of animation while always allowing the actors to engage with the audience whether in solo numbers or as ensemble. This is hardly a naturalistic production but every character is made real in their own way.

Savournin himself plays the multi-tasking Pooh-Bah as ultra posh and upper class, Philip Lee as Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko seem to come straight from Whitechapel, a measuring tape around his neck (well, he is a "cheap tailor" suddenly exalted) while Ian Beadles makes that other Japanese gentleman Pish-Tish camply eyebrow arching.

Kevin Kyle's cheeky-faced minstrel Nanki-Poo is an unassuming charmer - incidentally in this version he's no longer in the strings but the second trombonist of the Titipu orchestra - and the Mikado himself, played by Simon Masterton-Smith, is mellowly magisterial like an Edwardian actor manager; all that's missing is his Fedora.

The ladies are as well matched as the fellas. Catrine Kirkman as Yum Yum, innocently asking "Why is it that I am so much more attractive than anyone else in the whole world?" gives her a knowing naivety. Caroline Kennedy as Peep-bo is delightfully pert and Susan Moor full of chubby vitality and giggles as Pitti-sing. These are three little maids who clearly know how to enjoy themselves and ensure that we do. Katisha, the frightening frump whom Nanki-Pooh fled to avoid marrying is a marvellous contrast. Rosie Strobel gives her the energy of a Valkyrie and the strut of a Wagnerian chicken, all neck, an hilarious performance's though, and, like the rest of this production, it never oversteps the bounds of the style Savournin has given it, a style that takes its licence from the silliness of the plot, but what fun and what tunes!

"The Mikado" plays in repertoire at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until 23rd October 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton