Whoever would have thought that you could bring The Mikado off with a cast of six? Well, Illyria certainly show that you can – with crisp wit and panache on a tiny, very simple open-air stage with a small tent behind as dressing room. WS Gilbert (a very rigidly minded director/writer) is probably turning somersaults in his grave but he’s been there since 1911 so don’t let’s worry about him and his died-in-the-wool followers. Not that this show takes any liberties with words – in fact there were bits of dialogue included which are usually cut, maybe for good reason. Most of Arthur Sullivan’s notes are there too, expertly accompanied by MD Richard Healey on piano with occasional percussion (drum, gong, triangle, shakers) played by the cast. Some numbers have been arranged – of which more in a moment – but that usually enhances the harmony rather than detracts from it.
The Mikado and I go back a long way. My first encounter was an Addey and Stanhope School production when I was five years old and my father was a teacher there. Since then I must have seen it 50 times as well as playing records over and over again. Never have I seen/heard The Mikado done with such clear diction – every single word whether sung or spoken is spat out with a real crystalline edge by this talented cast. For once you really can hear lines such as “her honeymoon with that buffoon” and “diminutioner” tortuously rhymed with “executioner”. It’s also a real treat to see the satire and irony – which can get lost in the joyful silliness – stressed to such effect. Edward Simpson as a Ronnie Corbett-lookalike KoKo really does squirm when trying to justify his lies to the Mikado and yes, pompous, powerful corrupt Pooh Bah is as topical as ever.
There’s some masterly doubling in this show – which becomes, in itself, part of the joke. One minute statuesque Sam Wright, about two feet taller than anyone else on stage, is intoning and hamming up his bass lines (“I was born sneering” and “I am so proud to be allowed ..” etc) and the next, still in his beard, he is cavorting hilariously in the female chorus. It’s a delightful performance. We get a lot of laughs from Simpson too who also forms part of the female chorus as a dappy girl when he’s not singing KoKo’s list song – complete with very funny topical references – or courting Katisha with Tit Willow. And Matthew James Willis excels with his camper-than-camp Nanki-Poo doubling with various female parts.
The three women in the cast are interesting too. Stephanie Lysé is fun as both Pish-Tush and the Mikado – delivering every word of the partly updated famous Mikado’s song – “My object all sublime” with real aplomb. Jenny Cullen gives us a strong Yum-Yum among other roles and Rachel Lea is a good gor-blimey Pitti-sing and an entertaining Katisha with grotesque dark curly and scarlet spectacles.
Of course one could find fault with some of this. Having a unisex cast means that some of the numbers are wrongly pitched which calls for key changes and that detracts from the weight in places. Lysé makes some quite awkward octave shifts in the Mikado’s song, for example, and in places, the falsetto singing in some of the choruses is out of tune when it isn’t meant to be. Lea doesn’t have quite the blood-red quality in her lower register which Katisha needs either.
But these are very tiny things which don’t even dent the overall quality of this highly enjoyable show which manages to be both sparkingly original and, in many ways, nicely traditional. Director Oliver Gray has done a fine job – again. I loved Illyria’s Pride and Prejudice earlier this year too. Please may we have HMS Pinafore next year?