It could be argued that we’re so familiar with the style of comic opera geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan – the Victorian-era theatrical partnership who paved the way for subsequent musical maestros including Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Ira Gershwin, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and many others who happily cite G&S as amongst their main influences – that we think we don’t really need to see any more. But then someone comes along (in this instance, director Sasha Regan and her Union Theatre company) to subtly, skilfully give the whole genre a gracious shake-up… and we’re right back in the zone, wondering why we ever thought of leaving.
Having already waved her magic wand over The Pirates of Penzance (2009). HMS Pinafore (2014) and Iolanthe (2018), Regan’s boys are back in town for another outing of The Mikado (which premiered at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2017), yet again confirming her big reputation for artfully shaking up traditional perceptions of G&S productions.
While the company’s trademark ‘twist’ of replacing roles originally written for women with male actors could be seen as gimmicky, superb production values make the cross-dressing element almost incidental… almost. But hey, let’s not overthink it; sometimes – and most definitely, in this instance – shallow can be celebratory, whimsical can be wonderful, and the art of true, high camp truly, highly complex. And the very same could be said of the storyline…
Due to all kinds of slightly surreal G&S-style shenanigans, we’re kinda in the tiny Japanese town of Titipu, where Chief Executioner Mr Cocoa must perform an execution before an impending visit from the Mikado. Mr Cocoa finds a suitable victim in Bertie Hugh, a character we all initially believe to be a lowly wandering minstrel. Bertie is distraught over his unrequited love for Mr Cocoa’s fiancee Miss Violet Plumb; so forlornly lovelorn is he that he agrees to sacrifice his life and submit to execution if Mr Cocoa allows him to spend his remaining days with the object of his affections – and the plan rolls into action. What everybody fails to realise, however, is that the Mikado’s law dictates that the widow of a beheaded man must be buried alive… a lose-lose situation indeed for all concerned, presenting several tricky conundrums to solve before we arrive at the joyful denouement. Ridiculous? Indeed! But no more ridiculous than, say, Aladdin, or Mamma Mia, or Cats – and, in this context at least, far, far more fun.
Regan’s adaptation fast-forwards us from 1850s Japan to 1950s England and, rather than using a set that even vaguely attempts to recreate a traditional Far Eastern prefecture, puts us by a campfire in the midst of a collection of tents. Just as we’re just about adjusting to the fact that the male characters are mostly wearing baggy khaki shorts, broad-brimmed campaign hats and woggles rather than a kamishimo, the all-important ‘ladies’ crash the scene. But while there’s not a single, actual lady amongst them, neither are there any lame attempts to overtly hammer the unique qualities of a Regan production home; Union Theatre are surely the most highly-respected virtuosos of the contemporary G&S revival genre, and they’ve arrived at that point without paying lip service to any notion of grotesque, ungainly female impersonator flim-flammery to taint the quality at the heart of the matter. While Regan’s ‘girls’ may indeed mistresses of the art of giggling, flirting, swooning, braying and all other aspects of girly goings-on, there’s not a single clumsy heel, misplaced fluorescent false eyelash, fake boob or badly-fitting frock in sight.
Meanwhile, the action is carried along on a lush musical tide led by Musical Director Anto Buckley (who oversees proceedings from his keyboard almost in the audience, stage left) and the cast’s vocal abilities are astounding, most notably the schoolgirls’ moment in the Three Little Maids spotlight, Were You Not To Mr Cocoa Plighted (Violet/Bertie,Oliver Bradley-Taylor and Sam Kipling respectively) and the ensemble glory moment that is A More Humane Mikado (“to let the punishment fit the crime,” etc) – you definitely won’t meet with the disapproval of fellow audience members if you find yourself gleefully singing along to all the greatest hits.
Regan’s Mikado is a deliciously convivial feast of camp creativity on many levels produced with a lightness of touch that belies the superb crafting woven into every tiny detail of the production, resulting in a thoroughly entertaining, wholly eccentric, intelligent reboot of Very British Theatre at its barmiest, brightest best.
The Mikado is showing at Theatre Royal Bath until 15 July Visit theatreroyal.org.uk for tickets