The most famous and frequently performed of all Gilbert and Sullivans operettas, The Mikado has been presented in various guises over the years.
I’ve seen Jonathan Miller set it in 1920’s England and seen it presented with a minimalist staging by the DOyly Carte company in 1992. But before I entered Southwarks Union Theatre, I had never before experienced the show whose plot consists of everyone trying to escape execution, including the executioner with an all-male cast. My initial thought was that this might be a bridge too far, that the more subtle elements of the plot could be sacrificed to the pursuit of cheap laughs. Happily, though, within the first few seconds of the opening number, all of my fears were allayed.
As the ‘gentlemen of Japan sang and danced their way through the first song, I was struck by the strength of the singing, and the tightness of the choreography. The Union Theatre is a small space and the show played this to its advantage, enabling a certain quiet control to be exerted over the otherwise flamboyant dancing, and creating an in-your-face experience that successfully blew the audience away.
Since the first five songs are sung by the men, it heightened the anticipation of the arrival of the three little maids. In the event, the trio of men (Martin Milnes, Patrick Kelliher and Nathan Kiley) sang an octave up from the normal male range, with a quality of sound that I have seldom heard women achieve with the song. The supporting chorus may have resorted to falsetto, but the three principals sang strictly full voice, and with never any sense of strain.
But the real joy of this production was that it did not merely play on its central gimmick, and many performances were incredibly subtle. In particular, Christopher Howell as Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor who is raised to the rank of Lord High Executioner, moved away from playing a purely snivelling, stuttering wretch, to present a flesh and blood humanitarian. I have never been as moved by a Ko-Ko as when seeing Howell break down at not even being able to kill a bluebottle. Similarly, Stuart Armfield as Pooh Bah (Lord High Everything Else since no-one else would serve under Ko-Ko) put much consideration into the delivery of his lines, whilst Jacob Chapman was suitably overbearing in the title role, laughing one minute before proclaiming the death sentence the next.
But it was Samuel Holmes as Katisha who reigned supreme. Whilst there is much comedy potential in this most unattractive old thing, Holmes equally captured the real sadness in a lady whose ugliness meant it took years to train a man to love her. The only problem was that with some wonderfully applied make-up, he just looked too drop-dead gorgeous for the part!
It was slightly disappointing that several female chorus numbers were dropped. This may have been in recognition of the fact that there were only so many cast voices that could effortlessly carry off the high notes, and, if so, it was good that the company played to its strengths. However, if the show is to be developed further (and I sincerely hope that it is) it would be nice to see their return.
In truth, though the production worked well on its current scale, the Spartan nature of the Union Theatre, and the fact that only a piano accompanied the cast (played by Musical Director, Christopher Peake) still gave it a slightly rough and ready feel, no matter how slick many of the elements were. For this reason, if this production goes no further than its current four week run, it will probably not be going down in the annals of Mikado history, like the Miller or DOyly Carte productions. But there is so much potential here that, though the production may be small at present, it could well be the start of something big.