Everybody has their operatic blind spot, and mine is Gilbert and Sullivan. Sorry. I don't hate it, or even particularly dislike it (provided it's done well) but I just can't seem to engage with the music. This is no doubt my fault rather than the music's, but there it is, I've said it now and you're free to judge me accordingly. None of this is going to stop me trying to write about it, of course. I just thought a bit of a disclaimer was in order: if what follows is a bit less gushing than usually, well, now you know why.
If I were to gush, however, I think Anthony Warlow would have to be my first object of praise. This is the first time he and I have ever crossed paths: I wasn't living here when he was in Pirates and anyway, I've always found his large (and I believe predominantly female) fanbase a bit offputting. Popularity always makes me suspicious. But in this instance, I must concede, it appears to be pretty much entirely deserved: I understood within seconds why he's attracted such a devoted following. The man has charisma to burn, he's totally disarming and terribly funny, and anyone who channels Eric Morecambe on stage immediately has my vote in any context. For obvious reasons, I have nothing to compare Anthony's Ko-Ko to, but I loved the odd combination of neurotic energy and wry wit he brought to the role. The schtick in his List song was a bit over the top — he basically dropped all pretense of a character and just did a five minute spot as himself — but he's so appealing that somehow it doesn't seem as self-indulgent as it probably is. And to top it all off, he really can sing; yes, he was amplified, but then so was everybody else.
What was that I said about not gushing? Never mind. Kanen Breen was also brilliant. After a slightly forced and artificial beginning, I thought he wouldn't be, but he quickly settled into a fabulously and faultlessly camp characterisation: one review has compared him to Will & Grace's Jack, but all I kept thinking of was Ivor Novello. Kanen is in his element in this kind of role: not only does it suit his voice, but it allows him to show off all his other talents as well: he's an all-singing, all-dancing Nanki-Poo, leaping and bounding about the stage and throwing himself into the slapstick with alarming elasticity. But the biggest surprise of them all was Warwick Fyfe, whose rotund, tiptoeing, bribe-taking Pooh-Bah was outrageously hilarious and wonderfully sung. The comic flair which we saw in his Papageno is out in full force for this role, and the fact that he comes equipped with such a solid, powerful real-deal voice just makes him all the funnier — as does his superb diction and surprising talent for physical comedy. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best thing I've ever seen him do. Make of that what you will. Luke Gabbedy's Pish-Tush doesn't get as much scope for insanity as the other men, but he's suitably stiff and stern.
I'm developing a theory about Taryn Fiebig. Now that I'm liking Emma Matthews more with every passing day, I think Taryn is becoming my new Emma, the soprano I don't quite get. She does have a pretty voice and she seems to enjoy herself on stage, but I just can't warm to her. Especially not in comedy: her Galatea wasn't perfect, but it was much more coherent than her Yum-Yum. She's appropriately sweet and silly, I suppose, but beyond that I couldn't discern much sparkle, and the variety of odd quasi-English accents she used in the dialogue rather bewildered me. For my tastes, she was out-classed and out-sung by the glorious and admirable versatile Jacqueline Dark as Pitti-Sing. Jacqui has a knack for seeming utterly at home in whichever style of music she turns her talents to: she's just as thoroughly idiomatic as Sullivan's schoolgirl as she was as Verdi's Emilia or Shostakovich's Aksinya, and her grinning, jolly-hockeysticks portrayal here is an absolute delight too. Annabelle Chaffey is good too as a sardonic Peep-Bo along the lines of Mary Bennett.
Richard Alexander is a charmingly blustery Mikado, with a habit of switching from calm rationality to raucous bellow at the drop of a hat and sometimes in the middle of a sentence; I don't know if the similarity to Brian Blessed's Richard IV in Blackadder was intended or not, but either way it was highly amusing. Adele Johnston was a magnificently garish Katisha, the stuff of melodramatic nightmares with her monumental red wig and terrifying make-up. Her singing shifted quite abruptly between out-and-out contralto belt and a rather woolly soprano — the latter often unintelligible — but this role is all about sounding and looking scary, and she well and truly managed both. The chorus is bright and enthusiastic and seems to be having plenty of fun, if a bit uneasy in some of the more highly choreographed moments.
Christopher Renshaw's production (revived by Stuart Maunder, who presumably wrote the jokes for Ko-Ko's list of victims) is lots of fun. It recognises and revels in the fundamental and comical Britishness of this so-called Japan, and the stage is overflowing with the trappings of English-Oriental fusion: teapots and lacquered cabinets, a Mikado whose face is painted with a sort of kabuki Union Jack and the kinds of kimonos which only British sensibilities could devise. There's an unforced self-consciousness about the production as well: actors step in and out of character to interact with both the orchestra and the audience, and the set comes equipped with its own set of Victorian footlights. All that could go too far of course, but mostly it doesn't: nothing is taken seriously, but there's just enough concentration to maintain the storyline — such as it is — to a satisfyingly stupid (sorry) solution. Brian Castles-Onion was obviously born to lead this kind of performance and he has a great time with it, bouncing the orchestra along in a merry dance.
Curious. Despite my opening disclaimer, I seem to have lavished quite a lot of praise on this production after all. And it's all sincere. I really did enjoy myself. But I can't claim, I'm afraid, to have a much higher opinion of The Mikado in and of itself than I did before. My opinion wasn't especially low to begin with anyway, just neutral, and it basically remains so: the joy of this show was in individual performances and in an entertaining production, all of which made for a rewarding evening. So much so, in fact, that despite all my carping and claims of indifference, I'm seriously considering going to another performance: Stephen Smith and Lorina Gore take over as Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum in October, and much to my surprise, I really would like to see what both of them (and especially the gorgeous Lorina) make of the roles. So there you go: perhaps there's hope for me and G&S after all.