Carl Rosa Company at Gielgud Theatre – Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado

Gilbert & Sullivan
The Mikado (or, The Town of Titipu) – Comic Opera in Two Acts [Libretto by W. S. Gilbert, music by Sir Arthur Sullivan]

The Mikado of Japan – Alistair McGowan
Nanki-Poo – Andrew Rees
Ko-Ko – Fenton Gray
Pooh-Bah – Bruce Graham
Pish-Tush – Steven Page
Katisha – Nichola McAuliffe
Yum-Yum – Charlotte Page
Pitti-Sing – Sophie-Louise Dann

The Carl Rosa Opera Company
Martin Handley

Peter Mulloy – Producer & Director

Reviewed by: Arnold Jarvist

Reviewed: 30 January, 2008
Venue: Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London

The return of a Gilbert & Sullivan repertory company to the West End for a season, however brief, is cause for celebration. In the right hands the world-renowned Savoy Operas can be as fresh, contemporary and brilliantly entertaining today as in their late Victorian heyday; it’s a great shame that opportunities for Londoners to enjoy them are increasingly rare. Peter Mulloy’s Carl Rosa Opera Company, now entering its tenth year, regularly tours the UK and USA; this is its first foray into the West End – with financial backing from the impresario Raymond Gubbay.

Boasting a magic combination of Gilbert at his wittiest with one of Sullivan’s sunniest and memorable scores, it is no surprise that “The Mikado” is still the most frequently performed of their collaborations. A massively successful exploitation of the Victorian fad for all things Japanese, “The Mikado” actually has little to do with Japan apart from its setting: its enduring popularity lies rather in the madcap plotting and fabulous tunes.

It is a brave move for the Carl Rosa Company to begin its several-week G & S stint at the Gielgud Theatre with “The Mikado”: by taking on the umpteenth revival of Jonathan Miller’s hit English National Opera version, simultaneously playing just down the road at the Coliseum (from 2 February), Mulloy is inviting inevitable comparisons with a well-established rival. It’s about time that Miller’s 22-year-old production was challenged but, with a wealth of lesser-performed Savoy Operas deserving to be staged, do we really need two productions of “The Mikado” arriving at the same time?

The curtain rose to the impressive sight of the set of the Japanese village and costumes made for Mike Leigh’s 1999 film “Topsy Turvy”, recreating those of the original 1885 production: a riot of bold colours. The show got off to a plodding start and it became apparent that ‘traditional’ was the buzzword for the performance, too. The fast-paced, laugh-a-minute ENO version became a distant memory as successive characters with strong voices but little charisma turned out well-sung solos. It wasn’t until the appearance of Fenton Gray (rather than Eric Roberts) as Ko-Ko, the ‘cheap tailor’, that things came alive. Gray’s animated antics and hilariously spot-on updates to his ‘little list’ of those deserving the chop were of an altogether higher calibre, sustaining interest throughout the first act.

The first of the two ‘star’ names on the bill to make an appearance was 1980s’ sitcom-actor Nichola McAuliffe as Katisha, the hideous, bloodthirsty ‘daughter in law elect’ of the Mikado. Her big entrance at the end of the first act lacked dramatic impact, her tentative singing voice simply not being up to Sullivan’s operatic demands. This was a shame, especially as once she eventually hit her stride with the dialogue scenes, her comic talents came to the fore and she had the audience in stitches, hanging on her every nuance as Ko-Ko’s tale of a bird dying of a broken heart gradually succeeds in thawing her frostiness.

We had to wait until Act Two for the appearance of impressionist Alistair McGowan in the title role, and his original and immaculately understated persona as a distracted upper-class twit worked marvellously: he completely stole the show in his one major scene.

The rest of the cast was fine if unremarkable. Sophie-Louise Dann’s excessive heartiness as Pitti-Sing quickly became tiresome, but it was at least an attempt to inject some much-needed life into proceedings early on. Veteran G & S heroine Charlotte Page got some well-timed laughs as Yum-Yum, and gave a satisfying traversal of Sullivan’s gem of an aria ‘The sun whose rays’, but often seemed disengaged.

The chorus was thin-sounding, with individual voices too often sticking out, and these singers struggled with the operatic nature of the first act finale – one of Sullivan’s most glorious sequences. A criticism of the ENO production is the ludicrous sight of the generally ‘mature’ chorus ladies playing schoolgirls in “Daisy Pulls It Off”-style uniforms; Peter Mulloy, however, has achieved the staggering own-goal of stripping his chorus of its major asset: youth. Instead of a credible ‘train of little ladies’, costumes and make-up made the young singers of the female chorus appear decidedly middle-aged.

Tempos were sprightly, the pace kept moving by hawk-eyed conductor Martin Handley. His pit band was decent but disappointingly pared-down, a crack wind section somewhat making up for deficiencies in string tone.

The Savoy Operas are a uniquely special hybrid of the ‘musical’ and ‘serious opera’, and therefore need both expert comic talents and high musical values to succeed. Mulloy’s production is sadly let down by the latter, which frankly isn’t up to professional West End standards. It’s not a complete write-off, however, and worth seeing for the highly entertaining Act Two scenes involving Gray, McAuliffe and McGowan – but unfortunately these alone aren’t enough to justify the ticket price. A great opportunity missed.

  • Performances until 9 February; Iolanthe from 11 February; The Pirates of Penzance from 18 February
  • Gielgud Theatre

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