Review: Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’

Of all the theatrical societies at Exeter University, Gilbert and Sullivan is the oldest, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. To commemorate the occasion, this distinguished production company performed The Mikado, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most well-known plays and arguably their magnum opus. The story is set in small-town Japan, ruled by the Emperor Mikado in an autocratic and bizarre fashion. The foreign setting satirises the dysfunction of Victorian England, whilst avoiding any specific denunciations of English politicians. It is also a critique of English society- its rigidness, blind obedience to antiquated laws, and relegation of women to second-class status.

Having outdone themselves with last year’s Ruddigore, the Gilbert and Sullivan society had a hard act to follow. But The Mikado exceeded all expectations; this comic opera was acted, sung and danced with a zeitgeist worthy of its Cornish creators. Assisted by a skilful live band and an elegant, colourful set, the cast were all utterly superb. There were three performers that deserve a special mention:

Chloe Elliot plays a young woman called Yum-Yum, who epitomises the struggle for justice. In love with Nanki Poo (Tom Gardner), a man condemned to death to meet an execution quota, she must also resist the advances of the persistent Lord High Executioner, Koko (Ben Bowers.) Elliot is outstanding at conveying her character’s hopes and frustrations, including facing the prospect of being buried alive. She is also a first-class soprano, hitting every high note (and there were many!) with a perfectly pitched voice- beautifully demonstrating the musical genius of Arthur Sullivan.

The Emperor Mikado is a boisterous, authoritative ruler, but is also concerned for the welfare of his son. His song concerns his love of justice: how he always ensures ‘the punishment fits the crime.’ Mikado is portrayed by the accomplished method actor, James Stevenson, who delivers his lines with flawless comic timing. Stevenson also does a wonderful job of communicating the satirical nature of his character: well-meaning but ultimately a buffoon. Victorian England’s elite may have had good intentions, but they were utterly out of touch.

Adding to The Mikado’s anti-establishment theme was George Newman’s Poo Bah, an ex-tailor who now holds every public office in the town except executioner. The ridiculousness of such a concentration of power rebukes how Victorian government conferred such great responsibilities on so few people. Poo Bah gives Koko contradictory advice depending on which office Koko is addressing- the Chancellor, the minister for justice, the chief prosecutor etc.… Newman acts these contrasting personas terrifically, adjusting his accent subtly for each. A seasoned baritone, his operatic delivery was in fine form.

The Gilbert and Sullivan society did a marvellous job of transcribing The Mikado for the present-day audience. Part of that was necessary to avoid any crude stereotypes of Japanese people, which become apparent when performed in the original style. There were two notably humorous examples of this. The first was when Koko describes those who deserve to be executed- they include Lycra-wearing cyclists, bad drivers and those who spend £10 on Pret sandwiches. The second was when Mikado lists one of Poo Bah’s titles as the Minister for Brexit, adding a modern dimension to the play’s anti-politician narrative. However, the music and script remained true to the original. The costumes and setting, while distinctly Japanese, did not fall into the trap of overdoing it, with the possible exception of Hugo Wickham’s outrageously bright orange trousers!

Overall, The Mikado is a production of the highest order. It is both ridiculously funny and genuinely moving; it has catchy songs and witty dialogue; it is light-hearted but includes some important social critiques. Its only possible shortcomings are a result of its genre- a Victorian operetta- and not anything to do with the cast or production team. Some of the songs added little to the plot, largely repeating what had already been spoken. I didn’t always understand all the lyrics, due to the occasional times when the characters were singing different lines at the same time, and the odd moment when the band drowned out the singers. But those were mere niggles in what was otherwise a stellar performance- I couldn’t possibly recommend it more highly.

– by Owen Bell

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