Village hall panto makes for a comedy of errors

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The Independent Culture
"THE D'OYLY Carte Opera Company is Gilbert and Sullivan," declared a hopeful previewer last Sunday. If only! The truth is, they were Gilbert and Sullivan until that malign moment in the Seventies when the Arts Council pulled the plug on them.

At the time, the operatic establishment sneered, but the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company represented an unbroken tradition going back to the fountainhead. And if their routines were creaky, their singing was a delight, and their acting gloriously in keeping with the preposterous demands of their material. But that company was killed stone-dead: the D'Oyly Carte now strutting their stuff on the South Bank is an ersatz concoction.

But you have to admire their temerity in bringing, of all things, The Mikado, to the stage. For this was the opera with which Jonathan Miller proved that Gilbert and Sullivan doesn't have to be frumpy, provincial, amateur dramatic stuff for village halls. His black-and-ivory Twenties version for ENO had the whiplash elegance which the original must have had 100 years ago. And he succeeded where others had failed, because he took Gilbert's sophisticated comedy seriously, and let Sullivan's peerless score work its spell.

So what do we find on the South Bank? Carefully-contrived ENO echoes in the opening Japanese-like silhouettes, but thereafter, unmistakable echoes of the village hall. For this show - presented by Raymond Gubbay - is quite simply a throwback to pantomime. Indeed, Eric Roberts's Ko- Ko is pure Northern panto, completely at variance with the comedy's graceful urbanity: this never was, and should not be now, a "children's show". And the pantomime muse is even more disastrously invoked by the costumes, designs, lighting, and choreography, which are all the last word in tackiness.

Choreography is too grand a word to describe the movement here: I've seldom seen a more rag-tag bunch. The town band of Titipu come on still feverishly adjusting their shoes and hats, while their limbs fly in all directions; the three little maids don't move like a threesome at all. A work like this has to be perfectly drilled, but one has no sense here of the necessary blood, sweat, and tears.

The costumes come in a cacophony of colours, combining Viking with 16th century Venice, Japan with Thirties prop-box; Ko-Ko's get-up is a fright, while the Emperor's is ludicrously out of scale. The lighting and sets, which should provide continuity, instead change their game every couple of minutes.

The director, meanwhile, throws away all the work's great moments, dissipating their focus and blurring the contrast between quick-fire brilliance and slow expansiveness. Yet he had a talented cast, with a vocally-splendid Emperor (Lynton Black), a perfect Katisha (Jill Pert), and a Nanki-Poo (Joseph Shovelton) who sings like a dream. Thanks to them we still - intermittently - have a rip-roaring time.