WHEN Sasha Regan sets out to direct a new all-male production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, she doesn’t adapt or change the original – she simply wants to tell the story and transport the audience “into a make-believe world full of laughter and tears.”
And she does just that brilliantly in this revival of her original 2017 staging of G&S’s much-loved tale of Titipu, set at a 1950s boys’ school camping holiday in the woods.
I have lost count how many times I have seen The Mikado, including the famous English National Opera/Jonathan Miller version set in a 1930s seaside hotel and several D’Oyly Carte company productions, some with the legendary John Reed as Koko.
But I don’t think I have ever seen (or heard) a more touching performance of the great love duet between Nanki Poo (here Bertie Hugh, sung by Oliver Bradley-Taylor) and YumYum (Miss Violet Plumb – Sam Kipling). When you think about it, how daft is that – two school-boys in rather unflattering shorts, one with flowers in his hair! But it was achingly poignant and romantic and felt more “real” than any of the old D’Oyly Carte pairings.
In this Sasha Regan version, with appropriately English versions of the faux-Japanese names, Koko is Mr Cocoa (David McKechnie), the well-meaning teacher who is in charge of the boys. His efforts at discipline – a sign hung on the group tent that reads NO BALL GAMES – are pretty pathetic, but you know he has a kind heart. As of course does the Lord High Executioner, faced with the (ridiculous) proposition, first of cutting off his own head, and then of letting his fiancee marry her true love, only for him to be beheaded after a month, to satisfy the Mikado’s demands for an execution – a situation that rapidly spirals out of anyone’s control as “she” realises she will have to be buried alive as the wife of an executed man.
Then there is the disappointed would-be Mrs Nanki Poo, Katisha (Miss Kitty Shaw, Christopher Hewitt, with bicycle and tweed suit), who is wooed out of her murderous rage by a ditty about a little bird who sings Tit Willow and plunges into the billowing waves.
Oh, it really is all very silly …
… and hilariously, delightfully funny. The satire is still there – Aidan Nightinngale’s Mr Albert Barr has all the self-satisfied pomposity of Lord High Everything Pooh Bah, and we laugh at the puncturing of the inflated godlike aura of the Mikado (Lewis Kennedy), who comes in as a giant (riding on the shoulders of another boy), but is rapidly revealed as a rather rough-and-ready chap who just wants his son back. The vacuousness of the so-called “great and good”!
There isn’t a nimble foot or flirtatious glance out of place in this delightful production, with clever, witty choreography by Adam Haigh and expert musical direction from Anto Buckley, energetically at the keyboard throughout.
Sasha Regan is one of the producers who have successfully brought G&S out of the mothballed D’Oyly Carte museum and made these shows hugely enjoyable for new audiences, shaking off the strait-jacket of choreography and “routines” laid down in steel-reinforced concrete, and making them new and fun.
The idea of the all-male casting came from her own experience of the Savoy operas at an all-girls school, and it has proved a hit with new and old audiences alike. Gilbert’s wickedly funny lines and Sullivan’s beautiful music (it is easy to forget how seriously he took himself as a composer) will live on happily for many more years thanks to this delightful inventive company. The Mikado is at Bath until Saturday 15th July.
Photographs by Mark Senior