Anushrut Ramakrishnan Agrwaal spends an enjoyable evening reviewing The Mikado, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s first production of the year.
The Mikado is the first musical production I’ve seen in over a year. The last one I saw was on Broadway, so one might say the expectations were pretty high. However, I can say without a doubt that it was The Mikado I enjoyed more.
It is not professional polish that makes or breaks a play, it is the dedication to your performance. Watching the cast have an absolute ball onstage is what made it such a moving experience. Each body carried a contagious intensity as it moved from one end of the stage to the other and every time a note was struck or a lyric was sung it was as if it personally resonated with the actor.
The Mikado is an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. It is set in Japan precisely to exoticise and de-familiarise its audiences with the setting of the play, allowing for a satirisation of the political institutions in Britain. This unfamiliarity only works if you both fall into its traps and see through it so that the absurdity of the situation stares you in the face. The director, Emma Barker, and the ‘Wardrobe Mistress’ Angela Warneken set up for this up beautifully with the costumes. You could not describe the garb of the actors as anything but western, and in this western garb it is hilarious to see the chorus sing in unison that they are ‘Gentlemen from Japan’. In that moment particularly, the satire of the piece is clear. The thought that went into the actors’ wardrobe was made further evident when the Mikado himself (played wonderfully by Peter Black), was dressed in a more ‘oriental’ style so to speak, to set him apart from the rest. The difference in the costuming foregrounded the inconsistencies of the world created on stage, which any good satire will try to draw attention to.
The use of lights by the director and the technical team should also be commended. The design was minimal for the first part of the production, but as the production continued, we were visually treated to a lot more colour. Though it is one of the oldest tricks in the book to introduce more technical elements throughout a show to build up to a crescendo, it should be applauded every time it is done well, if for no other reason than that it shows a confidence in the performance of your actors and in the design of your play. It shows you that the director has a firm hand in structuring all the elements of perception to make your evening worthwhile.
Additionally, the orchestra of the production should not be ignored. Under the musical direction of Charlotte Perkins, the team showed a great range and capability. While their performance of the score was near flawless, it was their comic timing which really caught my attention. The acts of striking a chord here, or blowing the flute there, to accentuate a character’s plight or hysterics was extremely well done. My personal favourites were the flutists Mathew Patton and Iona Baillie. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch the actors. They were both watching the performance intently, making me feel that they were looking for opportunities and spaces in which to improvise. It was heart-warming to see musicians so keen to contribute to your experience.
Coming to the actors, while the whole cast did an admirable job, the performances that really stood out for me were Alice Gold’s Katisha and Ben Connaughton’s Ko-Ko. They were thoroughly entertaining spectacles in themselves. Gold moved with the precision of a craftsman. No one else could match her dynamism during her performance of the ‘Daughter-in-law elect’. Connoughton’s singing of ‘On the list’ brought the satire much closer to home, adding to his execution list the likes of Britain’s ‘dancing-queen’ Prime Minster, among other noteworthy figures. He played the Lord High Executioner with a panache and self-deprecation which is rare in actors these days. The scene involving Katisha and Ko-Ko was easily the best of the lot, and the grace of their movements across the stage during ‘On a tree by a river’ gave me goosebumps. While the rest of the cast was competent, their range and physical precision did not quite match up to Gold’s and Connaughton’s and their performances felt like works in progress in comparison.
As far as criticisms go, if forced, I would say that the choreography remained slightly unsynchronised and the projection of some of the actors needed improvement, as they often could not be heard clearly over the orchestra. That being said, this was only their first production of the year, and I would most definitely buy tickets to future Gilbert and Sullivan Society productions.