GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI CAN’T RESIST A BIT OF THE OLD RAZZLE DAZZLE
Gilbert and Sullivan is true Marmite music: some love it, some don’t. It is also, without doubt, a litmus test for any company of players, requiring ferocious energy, lightning delivery and perfect comic timing as Gilbert’s busy libretto spins swiftly across Sullivan’s catchy tunes. So, it’s not always to everyone’s taste, and it can be a risky business: but the Charing Cross Theatre’s new Mikado engages their audience with irrepressible enthusiasm, offering something for everyone to enjoy in a family-friendly evening of riotous fun, with some memorable musical moments. Gilbert’s jokes are all there, but a few have been (I use the word deliberately) ‘upcycled’: Russell Brand, TOWIE, the Twitterati followers of Stephen Fry, Botox, politicians and many more modern menaces are namechecked in two wittily updated arias, which both provoked guffaws of laughter on press night.
The Mikado itself is a gentle comedy of manners, performed here on a 1920s set designed by Phil Lindley which suits the story perfectly, making the piece seem rather younger than its 1885 vintage. Director Thom Southerland’s fast-paced production keeps the comedy rolling, while vigorous choreography by Joey McKneely gives an endearingly old-fashioned finish to proceedings on stage, with slick formation dancing and jazz hands galore. Performed acoustically on two baby grand pianos, it may not be groundbreaking, but it’s great fun. Ostensibly a love story, Gilbert and Sullivan seem to have been far more interested in its middle-aged protagonists Ko-Ko and Katisha than its token lovers, Yum-Yum and Nanki-Pu, and while the cast and singing are uneven at times, these central performances are defiantly strong enough, and the company moments warm enough, to carry us through to a toe-tapping finale.
Gilbert and Sullivan are the architects of a peculiarly British aesthetic, mixing boyish humour with self-deprecating charm and wry wit. Flanders and Swann never feel far away, closest of all in the famous “O Willow, Tit Willow, Tit Willow”, delivered with superb judgement by Hugh Osborne, who impresses throughout as Ko-Ko: Osborne seems entirely at home in this material, giving his Lord High Executioner a depth of characterisation which offers both humour and pathos, endearing himself to us instantly. Osborne’s performance shows Gilbert and Sullivan can be entirely convincing for a modern audience if you create a rich internal life for your character. Likewise, Rebecca Caine is a fabulous, fearsome Katisha, her huge voice easily filling the theatre at times, expressively soft at others. We feel pity (and not a little anxiety) for Katisha within moments; her fragility is endearing, as is her bitter bravado, sung superbly by Caine and acted with gleeful menace, shot through with a real fear of being alone. The reason The Mikado can move us, despite all its apparent silliness, is that some of its humour is in fact presciently serious at heart.
With a healthy dash of camp, glamour, greasepaint and sparkle, The Mikado makes for a rather old-fashioned evening of innocent fun: but hey, vintage is so now these days.
– Charlotte Valori
Charing Cross Theatre, until 3 January 2015. Box Office: 08444 930 650