The delights of a Gilbert and Sullivan experience will have been met again and again by many in an audience, while newcomers are wondering what all the fuss is about. Thus assumptions and preconceptions about how shows like The Mikado will look and sound are unavoidable. How was Opera Anywhere on Tour, with limited resources, going to liberate this old warhorse from the cobwebs and come up with an exuberant interpretation?
The venue here was the stone sunken amphitheatre at Waterperry Gardens, a little arena that would have had old Sophocles and Aristophanes nodding in approval. An early start allowed an hour’s interval between the two acts for a picnic or wander round the splendid gardens whose herbaceous borders reminded me of the Dormouse and the Doctor children’s poem with its geraniums red and delphiniums blue in their June glory.
Director and designer Paula Chitty sets this comic opera “in a stylised Japanese setting....in English colours of red, white and blue”, the latter being about the nearest we come to any kind of gimmick in the staging, other than a bit of ad-libbing and the expected updating of Ko-Ko’s little list (I was dreading references to dentures and the World Cup, but yes, there they were, right on cue), so we received constant visual reminders that this parody of a Japanese court, where irrational rules, pomp and ceremony give rise to all sorts of tricky situations before true love has its triumph, may also stand for that familiar, maddening English bureaucracy on our doorstep. Without disregarding the spirit of the original, seen in the outline of costume and wholly in makeup, this production seemed like a bright new acrylic rendering of the watercolours of Victorian yesteryear.
Musically, the show was on shakier ground. Of course most people prefer a live musical accompaniment, here we had but 3 players – pianist, drums and flute, together with sedentary chorus who were largely redundant – and despite their best efforts the sound was necessarily thin, and the 8 mins overture omitted entirely. If a chamber orchestra is out of the question, there is arguably a case for biting the bullet and going for the full recorded orchestral music.
But it’s the cast that makes this Mikado, both for their easy connection with the audience and their brio (and excellent diction). Tenor Austin Gunn is a soulful, dignified Nanki-Poo and Edmund Caird, a strong baritone, was a suave but tricky Pooh-Bah. When the Mikado himself (Fred Broom) makes his belated appearance in Act II he makes a real impact. Mr Broom is imposing in every sense, with bass voice and wit to spare. Mike Woodward made a suitably working-class Ko-Ko, alternately blustering and cringing, though vocally weak. The 'Three Little Maids from School’ were charming with their giggling and fan-wafting; convincing actors as well as singers. If for me the highlight of the whole evening was Yum-Yum’s famous aria, The sun, whose rays..., this was down to Helen Winter’s performance. She told me beforehand she’d sung the piece many times and it showed – perfect pitch and volume, capping her terrific characterisation of Yum-Yum. Lesley Garrett, eat your heart out...