Wit and warmth and a whole lot of fun: The Mikado at ENO

The operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are much-loved national treasures, as English as strawberries and cream and tennis at Wimbledon. These light comic operas poked fun at Victorian mores, politics and society, and their sharp observations, dressed up in Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy world” where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion, would have been easily comprehensible to their audiences – and remain so today. The operettas have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their enduring popularity, many revivals, and performances around the English-speaking world, and their messages remain witty and topical. The operas have encouraged political debate, social discourse and much pastiche, and the innovations which Gilbert and Sullivan introduced to content and form directly influenced musical theatre in the 20th century.

The Mikado was the most successful of the ‘Savoy Operas’, works which were written to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 by Richard d’Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together. Its story pokes fun at English bureaucracy and social standing, thinly disguised by a Japanese setting in the fantasy city of Titipu, a seaside resort. The narrative and the characters who populate it resonate today, in an era where career civil servants and political mandarins, sycophants and hangers-on appear to hold sway over those who govern us, and at a time where donations to political parties can lead to elevation to the House of Lords and other positions of privilege. All this commentary is delivered with catchy, memorable tunes (The Mikado contains some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most well-loved songs, including ‘A Wand’ring Minstrel’, ‘Three Little Maids’ and ‘Tit Willow’), wit, warmth and humour. Add an attractive set, fine singing and a great chorus, and you have the recipe for a splendid night’s entertainment.

As a child growing up in Shrewsbury, we had members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company lodging with us while the company were on tour, and in Birmingham in the 1970s I saw Welsh National Opera productions of The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. I’ve always enjoyed the clever combination of words and music, the hummable tunes and colourful settings of these operettas, and so when Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado first burst onto the scene in 1986, I was keen to see his fresh take on this much-loved story. It’s taken me 30 years to achieve this, and the latest revival at English National Opera did not disappoint.

The curtain goes up on a light bright cream set, depicting a hotel in a 1930s English seaside resort. The setting may suggest faded gentility, but there is nothing cosy about satire, and the production shines an amusing but critical light on political bureaucracy and scheming and the English middle class and their obsession with status. It is Gilbert’s poking fun at our own status anxiety, and the satirist’s talent for highlighting the absurdities of bureaucracy, which makes Mikado so enjoyable for us today.

The costume colour palette is simple, black and cream with tiny flashes of red, and the chorus and dancers are dressed as bell-hops and maids. Richard Suart as Ko Ko (the tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner) steals the show. It’s a role he’s played many times, and it shows in his exquisite comic timing: obsequious bowing and scraping one minute, the next flirting and patting bottoms of maids. His “moment” comes in the great number ‘I’ve Got a Little List’, updated as is traditional to reflect the zeitgeist. Thus, Jeremy Clarkson, Sepp Blatter and FIFA, cheating Russian athletes, David Cameron (with a not-so-veiled reference to ‘Pigggate’) and Donald Trump get a mention.

Nanki-Poo, the young man and “second trombonist” (which provides much scope for comic asides) who is in love with Yum Yum (Ko Ko’s ward, and wife-to-be) was elegantly played by Anthony Gregory with a nice balance between pathos and comedy, while Yum Yum (Mary Bevan) was winsome and coquettish.

Youth and experience were celebrated too in this revival: young conductor Fergus Mcleod was making his house debut on this occasion, while and Robert Lloyd, who made his debut at ENO 46 years ago, reprised the role of the Mikado, tottering and portly in his over-sized cream linen suit.

The evening fizzed along, the singing and drama enhanced by some wonderfully quirky and surreal Busby Berkeley-style dance interludes, and it was lovely to see Jonathan Miller there, cheerfully greeting friends in the bar beforehand, and later taking a bow at the end of the show. The standing ovation was as much an appreciation of that evening’s performance as the enduring appeal of Miller’s sparkling production.

The Mikado continues in repertory at ENO until February 2016. Details here