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The Mikado

by on 3 November 2019

Fabulous Witty Art Deco Escapism

The Mikado

by W.S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 30th November

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Any Gilbert and Sullivan fans sensitive to snobbery must have a tough time, as it’s fair to say that for some Gilbert and Sullivan falls into that small space between ‘too highbrow for musical theatre fans’ and ‘far too popular for opera fans’. Most G & S fans I’ve come across though don’t waste their time fretting about snobbery, preferring to spend it enjoying the fabulous, witty entertainment provided by this enduring canon of work.

There is an argument for updating the Savoy operas though. Another production of HMS Pinafore appropriately costumed and set is well and good but it will attract the “dated” label. On the other hand, directors such as Sasha Regan with her all male Pirates of Penzance, reinvigorate the work and give it a whole new lease of life, and a production of The Mikado created by Jonathan Miller in 1986 and revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall and team, with the ENO orchestra and chorus is really only going to work spectacularly.

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ENO’s Mikado is a beautiful production that provides two(ish) hours of total escapism to a lovely Art Deco land full of carefully crafted silliness. Stefanos Lazaridis’ cream and white grand hotel set, and Sue Blane’s monochrome costumes are visually stunning. Chris Hopkins’ conducting keeps the pace sufficiently brisk, doing full justice to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music, but steady enough for all of W S Gilbert’s lyrics to be heard.

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Characters in this happy land are carefree and eccentric. Richard Suart’s Ko-Ko minced about the stage happily living in the moment. Unsurprisingly our current Prime Minister (at time of writing) is on his Little List, as are the Sussexes, vegans, and the overly politically correct.

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Elgan Llyr Thomas was a very sweet Nanki Poo paired perfectly with Soraya Mafi as Yum Yum. Soraya Mafi having achieved a perfect combination of teenage ego, an instinct for self-preservation and childlike insouciance in equal measure.

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Andrew Shore’s Pooh-Bah was another comic creation, attempting to accommodate other characters whilst politely remonstrating with Chris Hopkins about the volume of the drums. Yvonne Howard’s Katisha was both intimidating and poignant with her gently drooping, single feather headdress and her crystal clear mezzo-soprano voice. John Tomlinson, navigating the stage in his huge costume like a small galleon on the seas, gave a rather arch element to the Mikado himself.

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The details perfect the picture. Dancing maids and camp bellboys appear at appropriate moments, grinning winningly and dancing at a speed that brings to mind the first black and white films. When Yum Yum, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo sing together, but are static at one side of the stage, a maid struggles to carry laundry across the background and shortly afterwards another, drinking from a bottle staggers across too. In a random, (and possibly niche) way I was reminded of Bill Forsyth’s 1981 film Gregory’s Girl  and the penguin in the background at various points in that film.

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It’s probably stating the blindingly obvious to say that Jonathan Miller fully understands what Gilbert and Sullivan were about. They were indeed pointing out the flaws of The Victorian society in which they lived but doing it by creating a satire set in the faraway country of Japan where flirtation is punishable by death and a lot of very attractive characters can play out an entertaining storyline and everyone enjoys themselves. This, after all, is what theatre is about.

Eleanor Lewis
November 2019

Photography by Geneviève Girling

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