Operetta THE MIKADO / LA VIE PARISIENNE Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
As D'Oyly Carte enters its fifth Birmingham season, rumours are flying about its future here. The company's financial support from the city is about to come up for negotiation against a background of increasing austerity. Preliminary rumbles sound a little like Tory ministers limbering up for an interview with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury - a truly Gilbertian situation - but it would be a pity if D'Oyly Carte had to leave its base at the Alexandra.

Despite the uncertainty, the company is gamely sticking to its policy of pairing G&S with continental operetta. This time Offenbach makes for a much more satisfying companion than Johann Strauss did last year, perhaps because the blend of uncontrollable cynicism with a total lack of sentimentality in La Vie Parisienne is bracingly Gilbertian. Perhaps also the company has grown into the more varied demands of related, but distinctly different, traditions of operetta.

Certainly the orchestra has never sounded better. In both The Mikado and La Vie Parisienne John Owen Edwards secured playing that was neat, expressive and gutsy; only occasionally in the Offenbach did the band seem to threaten vocal clarity with overly noisy accompaniment. The chorus is also a pretty tight unit combining excellent timing with an infectious sense of ensemble.

The Mikado retains the versatile sets and magnificent costumes of its 1992 run. Fenton Gray's staging, however, is vastly different - the kind of well-tuned vehicle that sweeps everything and everyone along with little pause for thought. It's all good, mostly clean, fun, even if at times one feels a certain unease that so many of the jokes aren't Gilbert's. With few exceptions, the main solos were a delight. An outbreak of Northern accents didn't really dampen the charm of the three little maids. Sally- Ann Shepherdson's Yum-Yum was exemplary, Declan Kelly's Nanki-Poo charming, if vocally less secure. Given his vast costume, Lynton Black's Mikado was a miracle of clarity, while Simon Butteris's engaging Ko-Ko was a worthy successor to Fenton Gray's from 1992. Susan Gorton (Katisha), seized every opportunity with both hands; her upstaging of the Mikado - no mean feat given his 15ft stature - was the comic highlight.

After this assured Mikado, Lindsay Dolan's production of La Vie Parisienne took a couple of scenes to establish its rhythm. I could have done with a more feral nastiness from the girls of the Moulin Rouge, but there was no lack of colour after the break. Edward Hands plays Gardefeu as a George Sanders-style lounge lizard, while Gordon Sandison and Pauline Birchall take Lord and Lady Ellington to the edge of caricature, if not beyond. The musical and comic heart of the piece are to be found in Liza Pullman's superbly sung and acted Glovemaker and Gareth Jones's Urbain, played with the confident relish of a man who knows he has the best lines. Alistair Beaton's new English version creaks occasionally, but its laughs are mostly well timed.

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