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The Mikado (Susan Elkin reviews)

Charles Court Opera, King’s Head Theatre

The Mikado was one of the first pieces of live theatre I ever saw. I was five years old when the school my father was teaching in did it. Since then I’ve probably see it 50 times. Never have I heard the audience screaming with laughter as much as they do at the fresh, vibrant, compelling Charles Court Opera production. And they’re laughing, please note, not at gimmicks but at WS Gilbert’s 133-year-old libretto expertly acted (by a cast of eight) to squeeze out every possible drip of humour.

We’re in the round in the intimacy of King’s Head Theatre and the setting is The British Consulate in Titipu in the 1950s. So the atmosphere is clubby with a big leather sofa of which much use is made. Men wear suits and the three little maids wear gymslips exactly like the one I wore to school. Heightened RP and strangled vowel adds to the ambience too with, for example, Alys Roberts as Yum-Yum distorting “have” to rhyme with “leave”.

The whole piece is about words and if you use your eight strong principals who double up to sing the chorus parts as director John Savourin (who also sings KoKo at some performances) does then every single word becomes clear – and that’s partly why it gets so many laughs. It’s a very funny text which, of course, includes the traditional topical references (Putin, May, Brexit, Southern Trains and so on) in Koko’s little list and the Mikado’s song.

Koko, the tailor who gets promoted way beyond his competence, is a common man – unlike the others. Philip Lee’s bravura performance makes him sound like a barrow boy, sometimes bemused and sometimes cunning. He looks really cross during The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring and his crafty but insincere wooing of Katisha with Tit Willow is a masterclass in acting.

What a stroke of genius to cast a man as Katisha. It’s a role which cries out for an old fashioned claret red contralto voice but rarely gets it these days. Matthew Siveter, who looks wonderful in turban and floaty clothes and because he’s larger than the others on stage also terrifies the other characters, sings it in the tenor register which puts back all the resonance and passion.

Matthew Kellett’s Pooh Bah oozes slime and self interest and sings beautifully as does Matthew Palme who doubles Pish-Tush and the Mikado.

Alys Roberts sings her soprano numbers with sensitive verve and The Sun Whose Rays at the beginning of Act 2 is the high spot it should be. Jessica Temple is great fun as frivolous, knowing Pitti-Sing always reacting and communicating. And Corrine Cowling is a delightful Peep-Bo who also supports all the chorus numbers expertly.

This top notch account of The Mikado makes imaginative use of a quite small playing area. It is, moreover, surprisingly respectful of a historic piece while also allowing it to beam out at a 21st century audience, many of whom, I could tell from interval eavesdroppings, were new to it. And that’s quite an achievement.

This review was first published by Sardines

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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