Sasha Regan’s All Male Mikado or The Town of Titipu at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh is a production that has been getting some rave reviews during its current tour, so I was intrigued as to whether the show would live up to its reputation, and honestly I don’t think I have been so divided in my opinion about writing a show review for a long time. One half of me found it a brave and innovative production and the other half found a lot of that bravery and innovation wearing off at times leaving me a bit cold towards it.
Maybe part of the problem for me is that I am not a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan at the best of times as I find their productions usually firmly rooted in their “height of British Empire time”, and those imperialistic views of the world towards other cultures (particularly in The Mikado) seem so often out of place in the 21st century. I can just hear all the G & S fans shouting at this page already, but to balance things, I also recognise that G & S operas are loved by millions of people world-wide and that somewhere every few hours one is being performed somewhere in the world. To balance things out a bit for me, my guest at the show for the evening is a huge G & S fan.
From the very start, removing this version of The Mikado from its pseudo Japanese settings was a brave move and setting us with our all male cast out camping in the woods looking like overgrown schoolboys from an Enid Blyton novel certainly stamped this production visually apart from anything else right away, and the strange thing is that in some ways it actually worked better than the original setting. For some reason, this Mikado stripped of those mock Japanese costumes and make-up allowed the narrative with its scathing attack on the corruption of local officials to really come through. This was an at times very sharp political satire that has just as much relevance now as when it was first performed, and I am sure that up and down the country as it tours, someone in the audience will recognise some local official at least in spirit on stage.
From the outset, going to see The Mikado as Japanese Kabuki Theatre would have been an all male production anyhow, but I am not sure on this level if stripped of all that imagery it worked visually with our on stage setting. There are some very good comedy performances here, and Richard Munday as Nanki-Poo gives an interesting and at times almost vaudeville slant to the character, but the stars of this show (and with the best lines) are always Pooh-Bah (Ross Finnie) and Ko-Ko (David McKechnie). Individually both are very good, but together they are a very good double act and at times it is easy to forget that at its heart The Mikado is a comedy farce. For some reason though the usually over the top role of Pish-Tush (Benjamin Vivian-Jones) seems to get a little bit lost and overlooked in this production. Our Mikado played by James Waud is however over the top and gently ridiculous.
Our all male playing female cast has some bright moments too, but the role of Yum-Yum (Alan Richardson) is totally upstaged by the elderly Katisha – played in an almost Les Dawson style at times by Alex Weatherhill (and I mean that as a compliment). The only problem for me is that the novelty of the gender switch wore off rather quickly.
Director Sasha Regan has been brave enough to take a fresh look at a production that can so easily become tired and a bit like a Victorian parlour dressing up game in the wrong hands, and I respect the freshness of the approach. Oddly though, the absurdity of the setting and some of the stage adaptations of the songs did work and capture that essence of fun on stage that generations of G & S fans have obviously enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) for so long. There was oddly more than a hint of Victorian vaudeville theatre on stage tonight.
No matter how you perform the production though, you are never going to get far away from Gilbert and Sullivan’s music and words, and stripping the music back to only the wonderful Richard Baker on piano really worked here and you could imagine easily being back in one of those large Victorian houses with someone playing the piano and the family and guests performing “The Mikado”. Along with David McKechnie as Ko-Ko, Richard Baker was the glue that held much of this production together. Richard Baker might not have been on stage and was perhaps easily overlooked by many, but his guiding musical hand was everywhere in this production.
As I said at the beginning, very mixed thoughts on this production. I did at times feel that I had entered some sort of alternative universe watching this performance, but any G & S production is a bit like that for me. You have to be able to leave the real world behind and enter into not only the fantasy world of a G & S production in spirit but also in mind.
If this production has one big flaw though, it is the same one that all productions taking a radically new take on an old favourite have, and that is that you have to be at least familiar at some level with the original first to get the parody of what they are doing on stage…a bit like the public’s current love of big budget Hollywood movies based on comic super heroes. You maybe don’t have to have read the comic to go to the movie, but it helps if you understand their background and relationships to one another a bit more.
The audience around me tonight were however in no doubt whatsoever about the show. They loved it from start to finish. Four stars I think for being brave enough to be different.
Review by Tom King