King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 13 May 2017
Clever, witty and tuneful, Sasha Regan’s all male The Mikado, at the King’s to Saturday, ticks the necessary boxes for a successful night of G&S operetta. Sasha Regan sets her Mikado in the tents around the camp fire of an English public school camping trip in the 1950s. Here, the bullied boy of the class falls asleep and dreams that his classmates and teachers have trotted off to Titipu, with the gentlemen of Japan.
It’s a nice conceit, once you realise quite what’s going on. Regan uses the overture to create the sort of boarding school environment you read about in books: places of wood and leather, of class snobbery and institutionalised bullying. Quite the right backdrop, then, for Titipu, where the bullyboy second rate taylor Ko-Ko is about to marry his young ward, Yum-Yum. Her sweetheart, Nanki-Poo, returns to Titipu, having heard that Ko-Ko is to be executed for flirting – only to find that Ko-Ko has been made Lord High Executioner and the wedding is most definitely on.
Gilbert’s plot sweeps along nicely, with Richard Munday a suitably self-righteous Nanki-Poo, Alan Richardson in brilliant falsetto voice as Yum Yum and David McKechnie quite malicious as the conniving Ko-Ko. Benjamin Vivian-Jones is the bullied boy, who appears in his own dream as Pish-Tush the notary.
Regan has the good sense not to force the humour. The original plot is humorous enough on its own, with the lyrics poking fun at a range of deserving hypocrites. Add to that the fact of all the female roles being played by men, and there is no particular need to gild the lilly.
So Richardson plays it comparatively straight as bashful Yum-Yum, although Jamie Jukes and Richard Russell Edwards as her best friends, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, hint at drag act bitchiness in their roles. While Alex Weatherhill as Katisha, the bloodthirsty elder woman who had been grooming Nanki-Poo from a young age, is pure battle-axe of the boxer dog eating a bumble bee variety.
Not that there aren’t places where it could be funnier. Ko-Ko’s little list of those who would not be missed if he were to execute them is an opportunity for a few contemporary comments. Regan knows her demographic and naughtily – and tongue in cheek – adds the creator of modern opera such as Peter Grimes, but there are none of the clever political or up-to-the minute comments that you might expect.
Nor, indeed – unless I missed it – are such obvious targets as the recently appointed editor of the Evening Standard linked in any way to Ko-Ko’s right hand man Pooh-Bah (Ross Finnie) – who has taken on every senior post in government and the civil service, along with their salaries
Musically, the use of keyboards instead of orchestra is sensible. MD Richard Baker is able to provide extra nuance to the music from his piano stool. While there are times where you yearn for a bit more texture, he ensures that the music never swamps out the singers – singing falsetto and retaining full power in the voice are not always compatible.
Consequently, the music is allowed to shine more than is sometimes the case. If you can’t sing loudly, you better sing with real understanding. So the Act 2 opening sequence of Pitti-Sing’s chorus number Braid the Raven Hair, Yum-Yum’s The Sun Whose Rays are All Ablaze, and the quartet it then goes into, Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day, is particularly effecting.
Ryan Dawson Laight’s set works excellently, too. A trio of moveable tents provide a fantastic platform for comings and goings and appearances of the chorus at different levels of the stage. A facet which choreographer Holly Hughes makes full use of in some very inventive routines. And it is all framed with a twilight glow by Tim Deiling’s lighting which consistently keeps the idea of an outdoor setting real.
If you want a full-bloodied Mikado with all the frills, this might not be as thrilling as required. But in terms of playing with the original in an inventive and consistent way, then this hits the spot.