The Mikado (London Coliseum)
English National Opera's riotous production hits the funny bone once again
Need a winter warmer? Jonathan Miller's surreal inter-war hotel is back to host a seasonal party for the madcaps of The Mikado. They've been popping in since 1986 on and off, and renewing acquaintance is like snuggling in front of a favourite movie with mulled wine and a mince pie.
For the edification of Mike Leigh, who neutered The Pirates of Penzance for ENO earlier this year, this is how you do Gilbert & Sullivan. Every line, spoken or sung, is carefully weighed, every word accented for maximum comic impact. Gilbert's text is the scaffolding within which Miller has refashioned The Mikado and repointed its Victorian brickwork with a modern whimsicality. It's a cartoon world of camp bellhops and squeaking chambermaids, gorgeous beauties and rotund absurdities, with more sight gags than Ko-Ko can shake a loofah at. This latest revival by Elaine Tyler-Hall (with, as Anthony Gregory told us in his interview, active input from Miller himself) scrubs up as fresh as the late designer Stefanos Lazaridis's pure white paint.
The storyline is bonkers, of course. G&S's version of Japan is about as authentic as roast mutton, for they only used a mock-oriental setting in order to mock England itself, circa 1885. Wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo loves Yum-Yum, but she is reluctantly betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Ko-Ko has a quota of beheadings to perform if he's to avoid the chop himself, and he hasn't even got started yet. The young musician seems a likely candidate; but alas, unknown to him he is the all-powerful Mikado's own son in disguise...
There's no need to extol the distinction of the ENO Chorus and Orchestra; we take that for granted nowadays, although we probably shouldn't. The youthful Fergus Macleod conducts Sullivan's score with wit and verve, and the odd glitch between pit and stage will doubtless be corrected without undue how-de-do.
'An old-school trouper'
Spoken dialogue is clean and precise. There are plenty of working opera singers who still live in Stiltedville, but not this company. Gregory and Mary Bevan prove natural comedians as the romantic leads - his dewy-eyed adoration of her jolly-hockey-sticks beauty is hilarious - yet they both sing like angels. Bevan will make you wish Miller had allowed ‘'The Moon and I'' to make its tingle effect, but he's never one to delay comedy for a mere ballad.
Richard Angas, who sang the title role in this production more often than anyone, tragically died two years ago and has been replaced by the venerable Robert Lloyd. While the former principal bass of the Royal Opera misses the glide of Angas's soft-shoe shuffle, he sings with a degree of articulation that renders the Coliseum's surtitles superfluous.
Lloyd's closest rival in this respect is his daughter-in-law-elect, even though Yvonne Howard is way too glamorous to pass muster as the ghastly Katisha. A word, too for Rachael Lloyd's beautifully sung Pitti-Sing; she understandably turns the head of Graeme Danby's deadpan Pooh-Bah.
But it's Ko-Ko whom audiences flock to see, and Richard Suart never disappoints. He's been Max-Walling his way through this show ever since the second revival, yet his energy remains as sharp as his timing. The voice is in fine shape, diction less so, but he works the audience like an old-school trouper, especially in his topical ‘little list'. That will change during the run, of course, but the opener was a gem. Cameron's pig went down nicely.
English National Opera's production of The Mikado continues in repertory until 6 February 2016.