The Mikado, a comic opera written by legendary duo Gilbert and Sullivan, was first performed at the Savoy Theatre in 1885. Set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu (yes, Titipu), we follow a host of inappropriately and borderline offensively named characters (Nanki-Poo, Poo-Bo, Yum-Yum) as they sing and dance their way through a Shakespearian mix-up of gastronomic proportions. Including well-known numbers such as “If you want to know who we are” and “Three little maids from school are we”, the production has been both loved and despised for over a century. Now, the Charles Court Opera has returned to the King’s Head Theatre with their “smart, stylish new take” on the classic.
Directed by John Savournin, this production avoids most of the ‘yellow-face’ that others have been criticized for. There is, gladly, an absence of ‘oriental’ costumes – with only one kimono in sight worn by Matthew Siveter, dressed in full drag as Katisha. With no excessive shuffling, bowing and praying, and no white geisha-painted faces, this production largely focuses on the silly and satirical take on British institutions, rather than the alienating and racist caricature of Japan that The Mikado is often accused of producing. That said, like CCO’s Christmas pantomime of King Tut, something still feels slightly culturally insensitive – there’s a terrible whiff of Victorian stuffiness, a colonial ‘Rule Britannia’ vibe that I couldn’t pinpoint the source of.
The cast are, as usual with Charles Court Opera, excellent. The plot itself is very British, very silly, and ultimately, a laugh. Philip Lee as Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Titipu, bears the same meek charm and unbridled enthusiasm that we saw in him as the Camel in King Tut. Alys Roberts returns too, having played the titular character in last year’s pantomime, and is now giggly and coy as Yum-Yum, a ward of Ko-Ko, along with Jessica Temple as Pitti-Sing and Corinne Cowling as Peep-Bo, together forming the “Three little maids”. Choreography by Damian Czarnecki is simple but tight, and the over-the-top theatricality in the movement is often amusing. And of course, a revised version of the originally terribly racist and sexist “I’ve Got a Little List” is expertly performed by Lee, which obviously includes little jabs at Putin, Trump and May, along with, inexplicably, people that have had plastic surgery and ‘lazy’ millennials.
As with King Tut, some of the jokes in this production, even though revised, feel outdated and insensitive. But, if you can put aside the blatant and slightly embarrassing cultural cluelessness evident in the mid-nineteenth century writing, then you can have a great time. The company use the small space of the King’s Head remarkably well, though the grandeur of the opera is not entirely diminished. If you’ve not seen an opera before, and don’t fancy heading to the opera house to pay a day’s wages for a ticket to be inevitably seated between a bilingual seven-year old and an old fellow who’s seen La Traviata 13 times, then I reckon this is a good place to start. A comedy of errors from start to finish, Charles Court Opera’s production is as good as a twenty-first century Mikado can get.
The Mikado is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 21 April
Photo: Bill Knight