An Old New Favourite: The Mikado At London Coliseum
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In 1885, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote The Mikado, a spoofish satire on politics and moralising in Victorian England but set in a fictionalised Japan. For the next hundred years it was their most popular comic operetta, usually featuring posh British types in oriental make-up posturing as Japanese grandees and a plot in which flirting is punishable by beheading, although no-one actually is as there’s a lyrically happy ending.
In 1986, director and Cambridge Footlights comedian Jonathan Miller re-worked it entirely for English National Opera and set it in a slightly bonkers grand seaside hotel, with tap-dancing waiters, a more comical script and a central role for his Monty Python mate Eric Idle. Miller put a shine on it that has been impossible to dull. Time and again, the production comes up fresh as paint and is the perfect antidote to dark days every bit as much now as in 1986 or 1885.
Even if you don’t know the story, you’ll have heard songs like Three Little Maids from School. It’s chock full of good, light-hearted tunes.
It still looks beautiful with Stefanos Laziridis’ cream-on-cream set and Sue Blane’s flapper-era monochrome costumes. Anthony van Laast’s exuberant buck-and-winging choreography has been reprised by Carol Grant and both the ENO Chorus and the tap-dancing ‘domestic staff’ throw themselves into it with gusto.
This is, however, a more stately revival, both in some rather relaxed tempi in the pit which doesn’t have the raw edge or urgency of the brassy Japanese town band, and also in the casting of some undoubtedly veteran ENO stalwarts in the leads.
Sir John Tomlinson is a mellifluous Mikado but not an especially nimble one, and while Richard Suart has made Ko-Ko his own more or less ever since the original performances with Eric Idle, he looks like he needs reading glasses for the topical ‘little list’ as well as a sharper scriptwriter: the soft targets of Boris, Jacob Rees Mogg and the Daily Mail are just too obvious.
Yvonne Howard as Katisha is not some ‘caricature of a face’ gorgon, but her own glamorous self who postures imperiously and shows real vulnerability in ‘Alone and Yet Alive’ but still needs more vocal attack to resist the onslaught of the younger cast trying to drown her out. Isn’t Sarah Tynan old enough for it yet?
Soraya Mayfi decorates Yum Yum with a superbly sustained soprano, and plays up the comedy with the occasional flat Lancastrian vowel but as her suitor Nanki-Poo, Elgan Llŷr Thomas sets a new standard in the role with perhaps the most elegant voice yet to have attempted it.
Besides, what else are you going to do with a light comic operetta about getting beheaded for flirting? Re-locate it to Syria and make the Three Little Maids from School jihadi brides?
Still grand, still stylish, still the best fun you’ll have at the opera.
The Mikado, English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4ES, £20-£125. In repertoire until 30 November 2019.
Last Updated 07 November 2019