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The Mikado (Susan Elkin reviews)

Local Amateur Musical Players (LAMPS)

EM Forster Theatre, Tonbridge School

It is 90 years since the Tonbridge Local Amateur Musical Players (LAMPS) mounted its first production and, almost incredibly, there was a venerable lady in the audience with me who was involved, as a young child, in the very first show. So the 2017 celebratory production of The Mikado, directed by Helen Thorpe, is quite something – both enjoyably traditional and glitteringly fresh. It isn’t often you hear a completely written Little list AND a modernised Mikado’s song – all good fun except that in places the diction could have been clearer to make these numbers even more effective. And I loved the car names in the song which WS Gilbert originally wrote in cod-Japanese,

The EM Forster Theatre – because it’s designed as a training theatre for the students of Tonbridge School – has a large playing space which allows choreographer Adele Ebbage plenty of scope for some imaginatively staged sequences. When you have, as most non professional societies do, far more women in the ensemble than men it’s a good idea to hive off five of the younger ones and used them as dancers while the others sing, grouped in other ways. It looks good and it ensures that everyone has plenty to do. Re-inventing the opening number as “we are citizens of Japan” (as opposed to WS GIlbert’s original “gentlemen” is an inspired 21st Century solution too.

The seven-piece band – traditional with strings – plays beautifully from the side of the auditorium under Mark Mortimer. Small numbers of string players can sound very thin and strained but not on this occasion – the mix was rich and vibrant. There were often problems with getting band and chorus (and even sometimes soloists) absolutely together, however. Mortimer is an energetic conductor but, head usually down. he doesn’t make enough eye contact with his singers. They can see a monitor screen for the beat but they need much more than that. Having said that, the madgridal in the second act was sung as perfectly as I’ve ever heard it.

And so to the cast. Leila Di Domenico as Katisha is in a league of her own. She sings (almost growls) those deliciously threatening bottom notes in a powerful, old fashioned contralto in the style 0f Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker. She looks fabulous with cat-like tribal markings on her face, a dramatic frizzy wig, long finger nails and lots of glittery jewellery. And she acts with every fibre of her body – eyes, tongue, feet and even at one point her extra long fifth finger nail. Her crumbling into sentimental submission during Koko’s (James Klech) Tit Willow is masterly. It’s a bravura performance.

Klech is an enjoyable chubby, estuary speaking, bespectacled Koko. Barry Shyvers makes Nanki-Poo much more interesting than he usually is with some witty acting and an attractive tenor voice. Eleanor Bell’s Yum-Yum is another fine and amusing performance with masses of “girlish glee” and a glass-breaking soprano voice. Peter Emmanuel as Pooh Bah, looking suitably grandiloquent, usually makes a good fist of rolling WS Gilbert’s pompous words round his mouth and this show adds a few new ones. His bass singing voice is resonant too but I could have done without his introduction (when I would rather have listened to the orchestra playing Arthur Sullivan’s lovely overture which was playing beneath him) and sometimes, at the performance I saw, he appeared to lose his way in his words.

It’s a strong, original take on an old chestnut which gets a well-judged balance between the way everyone expects it to be done and staging a good piece of musical theatre for 2017 with plenty of surprises.

First published by Sardines

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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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