Review: The Mikado (The King's Head Theatre)

A riot of fun as Charles Court Opera takes a G&S ride from Islington to Titipu.

Alys Roberts as Yum-Yum, Jessica Temple as Pitti-Sing and Corinne Cowling as Peep-Bo in The Mikado (Charles Court Opera)
Alys Roberts as Yum-Yum, Jessica Temple as Pitti-Sing and Corinne Cowling as Peep-Bo in The Mikado (Charles Court Opera)
© Bill Knight

This is the best fun you can have in a pub. If the name Charles Court Opera sounds stuffy, think again, because the company's zany take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular opera is inventive on top of original wrapped in outrageous. We poor old opera folk don’t get many laughs as a rule but The Mikado had me reaching for tranquillisers.

John Savournin‘s production is on a smaller scale than his Trial By Jury for Opera North and all the better for it; but let’s not get carried away. It isn’t perfect. Musical director David Eaton’s rickety upright piano constantly reminds us where we are (oh for an orchestra, however impractical), while the topical gags delivered by Philip Lee‘s Ko-Ko – and, as a second-act bonus, by Matthew Palmer’s Stephen Fry-ish Mikado – need sharpening.

Yet from the opening explosion of energy this is a show that knows where it’s heading, and that’s to five-star heaven. "If you want to know who we are / We are gentlemen IN Japan" sing a clubbable bunch of chaps at the British Consulate in Titipu, circa (I’d guess) 1945. The slight change of lyric from 'of' to 'in' might suggest a careful sense of location, but not a bit of it: after that peremptory nod we’re embedded in Gilbertland-on-Thames, and the Japanese marquetry on designer Rachel Szmukler’s rear panel could be straight off the walls at Crockford’s.

Savournin’s direction never misses a beat, and Damian Czarnecki’s breakneck choreography helps propel it uncut (bar the overture) in a whizz of time. Every word is audible and squeezed for its last ounce of fun. Dialogue is so precise it could have been lifted from The Crown, and thanks to their impeccable comic timing all eight of the tireless players mint the show afresh.

Matthew Kellett steers the evening’s comic pulse with his brilliant turn as Pooh-Bah ('Lord High Everything Else'), while Matthew Siveter camps up a storm as a six-foot-several, bass-baritonal Katisha. Alys Roberts (Yum-Yum), Jessica Temple (Pitti-Sing) and Corinne Cowling (Peep-Bo) are three very funny little maids from school, and excellent singers to boot. Tenor Jack Roberts simpers amiably as the lovelorn Nanki-Poo.

It is very hard to pitch Gilbert’s comedy just right for a modern audience, and harder still to do so in a tiny space like the King’s Head where every spectator’s face can be seen by the players. Lee’s licence to entertain frees his Ko-Ko to work the crowd like a standup, throwing in everything from sweat-ridden terror to a gleeful bout of bodypopping. And if Palmer’s Mikado seems to have watched one too many Blackadders, well, why not? Savournin hoovers up laughter from wherever he finds it, and it’s a blast.

The Mikado runs at the King's Head Theatre until21 April.