first night

The Mikado

Carrie Gaunt is transported to Titipu with DULOG's production of the Mikado

The Mikado is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most enduringly popular operettas and as director Ellie Gauge points out in her programme notes, it's not hard to see why. It's an effervescent comedy of star-crossed lovers with some witty musical banter to help the story along. What's not to like? It does, however, require an energy and enthusiasm from its actors which this performance often lacks.

Modern-day adaptations of G and S tend to serve up the storyline with a healthy dose of tongue in cheek to emphasise the inherent ridiculousness of the script and this production was no exception. Some actors rose to the challenge with gusto - Matt Elliot-Ripley as Pooh-Bah was quite simply a joy to watch from start to finish, full of energy and committment to the farcical, exaggerated character he had created. He played well against Hugh Train's brilliantly sardonic Pish-Tush. Russel Park as Koko was another stand-out performer, managing to marry exquisite solo singing with a consistently engaging performance during the narrative. 'I've got a little list', with some added contemporary references, was a hilarious musical highlight.

However, generally it must be said that these performances were the exception rather than the rule. The male and female choruses particularly are simply far too timid in every aspect of the performance. 'If you want to know who we are' was a weak opening, clumsy and self-conscious, and didn't fill me with confidence about the impending performance as it should have done. This was not helped by the fact that the whole cast consistently sang out of time with the orchestra - not only in the opening, but throughout the entire performance. This was incredibly frustrating to hear and really stopped the musical numbers from being as spectacular as the should have been. Generally, choreography is executed with a palpable nervousness which robs it of any sparkle. Singing is rarely projected sufficiently or words enunciated clearly enough, and this is unforgiveable in an operetta, which relies heavily on songs to communicate the narrative. I must be clear here that it is not the quality of the singing which is an issue - indeed, all of the songs sounded beautiful, but the words were virtually unintelligible, and particularly in larger chorus numbers I found myself unable to properly grasp what was being said. Rebecca Meltzer is a notable exception, providing a commanding presence on stage and a strong, well controlled vocal performance.

 Claire Ward (Yum Yum) and Alex Prescot (Nanki Poo) have their fair share of stunning vocal highlights (Ward's performance of The Sun Whose Rays is spine-tingling) but never quite convince as a courting couple. Their moments of intimacy feel forced and uncomfortable. Furthermore, Ward has a tendency to deliver most of her lines too quietly and occasionally descends into monotone. Whilst I appreciate that G and S performances tend to rest more securely on their musical numbers rather than on the strength of the script, this shouldn't mean that the pace sags between songs.

 On the technical side, the band, under the leadership of Andrew Mair, are very tight and beautiful to listen to. I'm not sure that positioning them to the side of the 'stage' was a wise idea - the timing issues may have been exacerbated by the fact that none of the actors could actually see the conductor. To be honest, the Great Hall, whilst an opulent and impressive space, was probably not the right choice for this sort of production. It is a very sumptuous backdrop for any production and at times did work well for the actors - high-ranking characters making their entrances by sweeping through the heavy oak doors, for example. However, the Great Hall does present limitations. The stage was too wide to allow for a real sense of intimacy for Yum Yum and Nanki Poo, and too thin to properly accomodate the chorus comfortably, possibly why there was a pervasive nervousness surrounding the chorus numbers. Furthermore, the set, necessarily competing against the period features of the hall, seemed sparse and just not very immersive. Indeed, aesthetically the production is not a roaring success - I thought the decision to fashion kimonos out of academic gowns was intelligent and economical but unfortunately robbed the production of any visual interest or colour, given that everyone was uniformally wearing black from head to toe.

 I feel that to see this show on its first night was not to see it at its best - there is definite potential there and some of the main issues should be ironed out altogether once the cast get properly into their stride. However, I was a little disappointed with The Mikado. I have come to expect great performances from DULOG and although I am aware that G and S is more complicated to stage and perform than a more modern musical, I still feel that there were lapses in this production which prevented the performance from being as impressive as it should have been.


14 November 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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