The Mikado – Review

Mar 27 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  Flirting with celebration

Lucy Evans as Yum-Yum. Photo © Paul Alistair Collins

Lucy Evans as Yum-Yum. Photo © Paul Alistair Collins

Assembly Roxy
Tues 25 – Sat 29 March 2014
Review by Thom Dibdin

A hundred productions down the line, and the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group returns to the Mikado, the show which launched the company back in 1961 under the guidance of John Burgess.

Just as in 1961, when Burgess told a student reporter that he intended to give the Mikado a little brightening up as the copyright restrictions had finished, this year’s Mikado takes a new look at Gilbert and Sullivan’s most-performed piece.

And with a fitting nod to history, it is in 1961 that director Aidan Heald sets this, Eusog’s ninth production of the Mikado, which runs at Assembly Roxy’s barn-like main space until Saturday.

It starts off well enough. A cool, curly “M” logo of the Mikado’s government offices dominates the stage, where chain-smoking secretaries studiously avoid flirting while the band run through the overture.

It is the sort of tight, clean direction modern Eusog audiences have come to expect since the company moved away from its format of one big production a year – often in Leith Theatre according to the fascinating exhibition of Eusog’s history in the breakout areas of the Roxy.

Under Ashton Brower’s musical direction the band have mastered the tricky acoustic of the space – if not every tricky passage of Sullivan’s tunes. But they have the pace and attack of it, which is what is needed.

And as the men of chorus introduce themselves as the Gentlemen of Japan, Heald’s concept holds up well. Even better when Conor McFarlane’s Nanki-Poo wanders through the audience in search of his lost love, Yum-Yum. McFarlane has a nicely bohemian air in contrast to the gentlemen’s tight formality and he delivers a sweet-voiced Wand’ring Minstrel, I in explanation of himself.

Yet it all begins to go awry as the twisting turns of the plot begin to emerge. It’s convoluted stuff: an emperor who has banned flirting on pain of death and a town called Titipu where the first man to be condemned for the crime has been made Lord High Executioner on the grounds that he will have to chop his own head off first.

Even in the best of circumstances, the Mikado demands an ensemble who are at top of their game when it comes to enunciation, if the comedy and shades of meaning are to shine through. To be fair to Eusog, these are not the best circumstances – the Roxy’s acoustic sucks the clarity out of lines as happily as a greedy child with a creme egg. Any minor lapses of precision from the chorus are rewarded with a sweet, sticky mess.

“a lyrically luscious trio of Little Maids From School”

Individually there are some excellent moments of music, however. Lucy Evens as Yum-Yum leads a lyrically luscious trio of Little Maids From School with Giselle Yonace as Pitti-Sing and Mary Davenport as Peep-Bo.

Giselle Yonace and the ensemble. Photo © Paul Alistair Collins

Giselle Yonace and the ensemble. Photo © Paul Alistair Collins

Yonace, in particular, comes into her own in the second half with a wittily-staged Braid the Raven Hair, while the madrigal Brightly Dawns our Wedding Day is actively suitable for the acoustic – a fact which Evens, Yonace, McFarlane and Thomas Ware as Pish-Tush make the most of.

Campbell Keith is a great, rolling, larger-than-life presence as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner who is due to marry Yum-Yum – to Nanki-Poo’s terminal regret. If he rather overplays the high-pitched shouts of glee, he does so to great approval.

He is equalled in that regard by Elizabeth Galbraith, the unfortunate woman of the Mikado’s court who has her eye on Nanki-Poo. A greater emphasis on playing up the music in her solos – rather than her movements – would have served the production better.

No such problem for Keith. His Willow, Tit Willow, if not the tear-jerker it can be, is splendidly done – and his  enunciation of the little list of those who would not be missed in As Someday it Might Happen is clear. Although it is in the latter number that the production betrays a somewhat disappointing lack of ambition.

Such a celebratory anniversary production as this is surely the time to work even harder than usual on the modification of the lyrics. That list would have been the perfect place to note particularly memorable figures in Eusog’s history. Most productions take the opportunity of something new, but this has little or nothing changed from Gilbert’s original lines – let alone any attempt to mark the anniversary.

Dominic Corbett gives a solid performance as Pooh-Bah, the one town official who doesn’t mind working with Ko-Ko and so takes on every single job in the municipality. Together with the pay for each position. And when he finally arrives, Cailean Morison gives a satisfying account of the Mikado.

A diverting evening out which is at its best when it lets the music take precedence. Although those with an eye for their history of fashion will be slightly distracted by styles which post-date the supposed year of the production’s setting by several years.

Running time 2 hrs 30 mins.
Run ends Saturday 29 March
Daily, not Fri, 7.30pm; (Friday 6.30pm); Saturday matinee 2.30pm.
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Tickets from XTS-pro:

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