Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Mikado, Charles Court Opera, Rosemary Branch

Back to the Rosemary Branch Theatre (a super, 50-seater space above a good, straightforward Hackney pub) for more music theatre. On this occasion I had come along to hear Charles Court Opera perform Gilbert and Sullivan's most celebrated operetta The Mikado, in which what I imagine to be the usual ingredients of sprightly melody and textual wit are transposed to a (occasionally ersatz) Japanese situation.

I was hugely impressed in some unlikely areas with this production. The costume design was several notches above the begged, borrowed or pressed-into-service arrangements that many small and medium-sized music theatre companies operate. I would struggle to believe that the bright, period-hinting costumes had not been made from scratch across the cast. The advantage this has is that is sets a level of freshness that is entirely consonant with the energy that the company bring to their performance, which is constantly high.

Additionally, the production itself takes place in an empty space save for a stack of nine scarlet boxes which are moved about by the cast. Apart from creating channels, daises and entrances this also has the advantage of giving the performers a further, abstract concern whilst on stage. Some might consider this a burden on the cast but, given the high tempo at which they moved about the space and delivered their lines, it was useful for them to have this recourse where one might otherwise expect to find on stage furniture, windows or props for them to work with.

Given the visual stimulus of the costuming and the openness of the stage, the restlessness of the show comes as no surprise. It's focused though, respecting the text and always sensibly blocked so that nothing is obscured. Kevin Kyle's Nanki-Poo sets early expectations high anyway by blowing his own trumpet - well, trombone - and the two gentlemen of Japan Pish-Tush (Ian Beadle) and Pooh-Bah lay down a benchmark for the patter that is to come. Director John Savournin, singing Pooh-Bah, is clearly fluent in the idiom, managing the hopping between sung and spoken voice without seam and delivering lines with an optimum sense of timing. It's upon this sense that not only the comedy but a sense of clarity amongst the tumble of parody and farce is achieved.

Naturally the 'three little maids from school' rushed the stage as if from a roughly opened bottle of pop. A blur of choreography and Louise Brooks-bobbed wigs was punctuated by giggling. Susan Moore's finger-picking was a clever little trope which instantly made her the pubescent Peep-Bo, where Carolina Kenedy simply deployed her saucer-eyes as Pitti-Sing. Catrine Kirkman's Yum-Yum, decked out in scarlet as the  base-note of the production, claimed her role prima inter pares at first with a great smile and later with some terrific, unleashed soprano singing.

The drama of The Mikado is created by a further trio of characters, fed into the story to maximise their drama and impact. Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner is played by Philip Lee in an entirely appropriate nod to Stan Laurel, generating the comedy through persistent (ingratiating) incongruity. Just as the first half seems to have found some sort of equilibrium to the problem of Nanki-Poo as thwarted lover and Ko-Ko as ridiculous interloper Rosie Strobel bursts in with a Katisha of Turandot-like instability, throwing things into disarray with terrific comic melodrama. Things reach a head, so to speak, when The Mikado himself comes to see that all is as it should be; again, just as in Puccini's Turandot, this is a moment for a considerable stage presence and Simon Masterson-Smith delivers this with a splendid mix of hauteur and affability.

James Young and David Eaton perform the score as a four-handed duet with quite exceptional ensemble and sensitivity to recitative, no mean feat given that they are up stage of the cast and facing that way too. I could barely get over the furious, Nozze di Figaro-like runs of the opening. But then, the whole performance was like that, so settling into a mix of wonder and frequent guffawing seemed like the natural way to spend the show.

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