Gilbert and Sullivan
Carl Rosa Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Since the expiration of the copyright in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and the consequent freedom to experiment and get away from the narrow restrictions of the D'Oyly Carte prompt book, all of their operettas have been subject to much reinterpretation and, indeed, reinvention. Then along came Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy, which sparked a fresh interest in the original production and the fascination of the time with things oriental, especially Japanese.
In this production, Peter Mulloy, Carl Rosa's artistic director, has gone back to the original, to try to recreate it as far as possible. The costumes and set are as close to the original as possible, as is the choreography, including George Grossmith's eccentric dancing as Ko-Ko. Also following tradition is the rewriting of Ko-Ko's "little list" to suit the times: Simon Butteriss, who not only plays Ko-Ko but also wrote the new words, manages to work in, among others, Gordon Brown and John Prescott.
But although these things are obviously Victorian, the production has, in many ways, a curiously modern feel about it. This comes partly from Butteriss' performance (who would have imagined Homer Simpson in G&S!), partly from the vigour of the playing by the whole company, partly from the fact that the setting is so obviously, to a modern audience, the Victorian conception of Japan, and partly from a kind of complicity between audience and performers: we know it's 2005, but let's pretend it's 1885.
What is perhaps surprising is that, 120 years later, The Mikado can still make us laugh. That's because, although ostensibly we are in Japan, the characters are instantly recognisable and Titipu could, in fact, be anywhere at any time, which is why, for example, Chris Monks' cricketing version works. But this Carl Rosa production does not need modernising to make it relevant: like Gilbert's original production, it is told very simply.
Butteriss is an excellent Ko-Ko, not only funny but also managing to convey the pathos of the character, and Steven Page impresses as the Mikado. As Nanki-Poo, Ivan Sharpe does all that can be expected of him: he looks good and sings well but the part doesn't offer much scope. Yum-Yum fares a bit better, with a few more comic opportunities, and Charlotte Page takes every chance she is given.
Of the "three little maids" it's Pitti-Sing who gets the best lines and Victoria Ward makes the most of them. Bruce Graham's Pooh-Bah contrasts nicely with her in the scenes they have together, and he provides a good, solid foil to both her and Ko-Ko.
As Ko-Ko is undoubtedly the best of the men's parts, so Katisha is the best of the women's. At the Theatre Royal press night Nuala Willis was indisposed and so we had Patricia Leonard. She was great: hard (indeed scary) exterior but with a softness underneath which was quite appealing.
The chorus were well-drilled, as they have to be with the precision of movement and gesture (with and without fans) demanded by the choreography, and they sang well. The opening Gentlemen of Japan from the men was strong, whilst the ladies' moment in the spotlight, Braid the Raven Hair which opens Act II, was truly authentic G&S.
It was great fun: although in prospect the idea of an "original" Mikado was a little worrying, given the almost mechanical productions we became familiar with prior to the ending of the copyright, in actuality it had a freshness and liveliness which ensured a great evening's entertainment.