Saturday 29th November 2014, matinée
Ambitious, wordy and overblown would be our verdict. We are, of course, talking about the publicity leaflet for Thom Southerland’s ‘radically reconceived’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’ at the Charing Cross Theatre. We are also informed that the production not only ‘boasts a Noel Coward sensitivity [sic]‘ but is ‘Hobson’s choice-inspired’. We haven’t seen this many euphemisms since we looked into an Estate Agent’s window. We’re not sure what any of it means, but none of it seemed to help the story along. However, with a plot that makes Noel Coward look like Ibsen, this is not really a problem.
Written in the 1880s, the Japanese setting is a very thin disguise for a satire that is closer to home: Britain’s entrenched class system, its out of date legal institutions, and widespread corruption in Government. The story starts with Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado (the emperor of Japan), who runs away in fear of his life after refusing to marry his father’s choice of bride, and disguises himself as a ‘wandering minstrel’ in order to woo his true love, Yum-yum, who in turn must marry her guardian Ko-ko, who happens to be the Lord High Executioner. Hilarity ensues.
This was our first outing to see ‘The Mikado’, but we felt immediately at home when we started to recognise so many of the songs, not least among them ‘Three little maids’, ‘A wandering minstrel I’, ‘Tit willow’, ‘I’ve got a little list’, and ‘Let the Punishment fit the crime’. The situations and characters are also frighteningly recognisable, and the logical absurdities not too far-fetched.
Rebecca Caine, whose name caught our eye when we decided to book, lives up to her star billing as the aged ‘daughter in law elect’ of the Mikado, Katisha. She raised the bar and the roof as soon as she came on stage, with powerful vocals and a fine comic turn of scary desperation hiding a soft-centred sweetness. She is ably supported by her father-in-law elect Mark Heenehan as the Mikado, who perfectly captures the smug self-satisfaction of a ruler surrounded by yes-men, although he is quite entitled to be smug about his rich voice. As Ko-Ko, Hugh Osborne is the archetypal spineless middleman, totally unsuited to political office, but desperate to hang to the power he doesn’t deserve. His cynical wooing of Katisha with the song ‘Tit willow’ (‘I knew the bird myself’ – he exclaims) is hilarious. Leigh Coggins has very strong vocals as Yum-yum, and is delightfully pragmatic as she prepares for her wedding and waits for fate to decide who she will marry. Jacob Chapman brings some slinky moves and strong diction to the role of Pish-Tush, leading the frivolity with aplomb. All were ably supported by a strong chorus.
There was a lot of fun to be had with this production – there were plenty of comedic moments and Joey McKneely’s twenties-style choreography worked well and kept the energy levels high in the big numbers. We do have a niggle about use of two baby grand pianos in place of a band. Although trumpeted (!) in the publicity as though it’s a good thing, for us, it brought back dark memories of the 2009 production of ‘Annie Get your Gun’ we saw at the Young Vic. That show ‘boasted’ four pianos, and removed the opportunity for subtlety and variation in the music. Similarly with the ‘Mikado’, we kept having the sensation of being in a rehearsal room, as if the music was a work in progress. We don’t understand why a more creative alternative wasn’t used, after all it is opera, not music hall.
Ultimately though, the show didn’t quite take off, and this may have been due to lack of a clear vision about how the overall acting style should serve the piece. We’ve now seen four Thom Southerland productions and a pattern seems to be emerging. Two of them, Titanic and Mack and Mabel, were outstanding, whereas the issues we had with Victor/Victoria and this production were similar, ie, the technical aspects of the comedy. It’s hard to be a master of all trades though, and when it comes to tragedy, drama, and sweeping storylines, Southerland is truly in his element.