The Mikado, Coliseum, London
A Mikado that would be missed
Wednesday 07 April 2004
About a third of the way into Jonathan Miller's now classic refit of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, receives the Mikado's letter. After scrutinising it at length, every which way, he finally exclaims: "I can't read this. It's in Japanese!" And as if we hadn't known all along, Miller nails the whole G&S ethos. The Mikado isn't about the Japanese any more than The Gondoliers is about Venetian boatmen. Guess what, it's about the English. It's about the English engaged in their favourite pastime - laughing at themselves. And the biggest laughs of all are reserved for the Establishment. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
For anyone who hasn't yet seen this show, take sunglasses. When the curtain rises on Stefanos Lazaridis's terrific set - a posh spa hotel in the 1930s - the brilliant white of it still dazzles. It's as topsy-turvy as the humour. Pert chamber maids and perter bellboys materialise and vanish on cue, twinkle-toeing across the threshold, in and out of tap-shoes. It isn't camp at all, really. When Nanki-Poo's "wandering minstrel" invokes "a song of the sea" in deference to the common sailor "with his Nancy on his knee" - all the chorus boys to a man (if that's not stretching a point) turn mid-hornpipe and glower.
There's an outrageously protracted entrance for Ko-Ko, all fanfares, teeth and smiles and strewn rose-petals. Except that he doesn't - enter, that is. From the top, one more time, Miller and his choreographer Anthony van Last repeat the entire sequence, the girls endeavouring to gather up as many of the strewn petals as possible, the boys rolling their eyes as if to say, "If we must, love, but get it right this time". It's the showbiz conceit that Miller catches so well. He reminds us that musical comedy really began here, that the American musical theatre would be nowhere without G&S. Everyone, from the Gershwins to Leonard Bernstein, revered them. Miller shows us why.
Like any show - particularly one in its 10th revival - this one needs to run in a little. It's spry, but will doubtless sharpen after a few more performances. Timing is everything. And topicality, of course. Ko-Ko's "little list" of prospective victims, all of whom will "not be missed", is duly updated as befits tradition. Richard Suart writes his own "little list" lyrics, and the usual suspects are all present and correct, Mr Bush's "poodle" yet again topping the bill. WMD will not be found, even in Titipu. "Sidcup water", bottled by Coca-Cola, gets a mention, as do the "dominatrix" Anne Robinson, Raymond Gubbay, and "Cameron" (that's Mackintosh to you and me) for his cut-down Les Mis band. I hope they all realise what a privilege it is to be included.
Suart turns in one of his best performances as Ko-Ko. G&S is his stock-in-trade, we know, but the energy and comic precision of what he does comes so naturally that you are simply not aware of its skill. He's a sharp mime and a sharp mimic (everything from Gordon Brown to Olivier's Richard III), and he visibly diminishes in size when confronted with Frances McCafferty's indomitable Katisha whose arrival with her "pilot, accompanist, and unrequited lover" in tow could be the answer as to the whereabouts of the missing WMD. McCafferty is splendid, not just for the formidable thrust of her chest notes but for the tender solemnity with which she sings her two Edwardian "ballads".
We all need to be reminded what an exquisite touch Sullivan had. Bonaventura Bottone does so as the kiss-curled Nanki-Poo, and Jeni Bern (a frightfully "far-back" Yum-Yum) is sound, if not glorious, in the big number "The Sun Whose Rays". Her sisters, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo (Victoria Simmonds and Fiona Canfield) are somewhat under-projected. Not so Ian Caddy's Pooh-Bah - "Lord High Everything Else" - who is whatever you want him to be. For a price. Sound familiar?
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