A Charles Court Opera production at the Rosemary Branch is always a treat; this chamber opera company specialising in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan has premiered almost all of their 20-plus productions at the Rosie since their inception six years ago, returning with a mini-festival of works to commemorate the centenary of Gilbert’s death. This production of The Mikado featuring a cast of nine is minimalist in terms of set, but is quite the contrary in relation to the exuberance on display, the very high musical standards and the detailed characterisation.
The idea of exotic Japanoiserie (fans, kimonos, etc.) that so captivated nineteenth-century Europeans is stripped away, with a stylised red and black colour scheme in a possible nod to the comic bloodthirstiness that leads the plot. The costumes are 1920s-style with a twist; the very proper ‘gentlemen of Japan’ (more like ex-pats than locals) have their cravats and pocket handkerchiefs, while the travelling trombonist hero Nanki-poo is a floppy-haired beatnik in jeans and the ‘three little maids from school’ are dressed in gymslips that are actually cropped dungarees and matching black bobs.
Finding a volunteer willing to lose his head is rarely a simple matter. When ‘cheap tailor’ promoted to Lord High Executioner of Titipu Ko-Ko discovers that the position isn’t merely ceremonial, he comes across the conveniently suicidal Nanki-poo who agrees to take the chop in return for a month-long marriage to his lady love Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko’s own fiancée (as well as his ward). This arrangement isn’t quite as straightforward as it might seem, such as the law dictating that his widow be buried alive, but in true British stiff-upper-lip-style, they resolve to make the best of things. After a number of mishaps and double bluffs, bloodshed is averted – this is comic opera after all.
His Majesty The Mikado makes a relatively late entrance into the proceedings, portrayed by a munificent Simon Masterton-Smith who lends the character a hint of sadistic curiosity. Philip Lee is thoroughly entertaining as the flustered Ko-Ko, reminiscent of Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins with a tape measure draped around his neck. There’s a really rather sultry Katisha, the hag to whom Nanki-poo accidentally got engaged, in the vigorously energetic Rosie Strobel. She makes her entrance like Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty in a puff of scarlet chiffon, with Pitti-sing and Peep-bo gathering around like the good fairies as she curses Yum-Yum. A very appealing pair of young lovers can be seen in Kevin Kyle’s easy-going Nanki-poo and Catrine Kirkman’s lovely Yum-Yum, an ingénue who doesn’t believe in false modesty.
The multi-talented John Savournin (the show’s director and choreographer) is also remarkably deft comic actor as the over-employed “born sneering” Lord High of Everything Else Pooh-bah of “pre-Adamite ancestral descent”, who gets many of the wittiest lines exposing the contorted logic of this topsy-turvy world where “every judge is own executioner.” Animated support also comes from Ian Bealdle’s arch Pish-tush, along with Caroline Kennedy’s spirited Peep-bo and the wonderful Susan Moore as a hilariously hearty Pitti-sing.
The cast are supported by David Eaton’s fizzing piano accompaniment. No punishments need be doled out on this delightful production delivered by a troupe of splendid singers whose high spirits have a contagious effect on the audience.