“In spite of its enormous success, The Mikado had its detractors”, the show’s programme announces: “The Japanese ambassador to England, for instance, tried to have it suppressed”. If only he had succeeded.
For anyone unfamiliar with the facile merry-go-round rigmarole that Gilbert positions as a plot, it is as follows: Nanki-Poo, the estranged son of the Mikado, has travelled to Titipu disguised as a musician upon hearing that Ko-Ko, the tailor destined to marry his true love Yum-Yum, has been condemned to death for flirting. So far, so culturally inappropriate.
Nanki-Poo now intends to marry Yum-Yum, but in a strange twist of fate Koko has been raised from executee to executioner. Distressed, Nanki-Poo decides to end his own life – but not before The Mikado orders an immediate execution (because that’s how democracy works). Ko-Ko technically remains next in line so needs a willing substitute. He persuades Nanki-Poo to take his place in return for a month of marriage with Yum-Yum. The deal is about to be made when Katisha, an older woman who looks alarmingly like Ukraine’s 2007 entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, arrives to expose Nanki-Poo as the Mikado’s son – and the man she is to marry.
If you come back after the interval you’re a masochist.
Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo’s month-long bliss is cut shorter still by Ko-Ko’s uncovering that any bride of a beheaded man must be buried alive. Yum-Yum’s not so keen now. Suddenly a message is delivered: The Mikado will arrive in ten minutes. Ko-Ko, still to make an execution, bribes town official extraordinaire Pooh-Bah to verify the beheading of Nanki-Poo. Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo are told to wed and flee.
The Mikado is happy to hear the gory details of the recent execution however Katisha, casually rooting through official government documentation, sees Nanki-Poo as the name of the beheaded. She becomes distraught – Nanki-Poo was the only man she had ever successfully forced into an engagement (despite his abandoning her). Who will she pretend loves her now?
There’s only one thing for it. Ko-Ko must win her heart before he himself is executed (for executing the Mikado’s son, who already wanted to die anyway but isn’t in fact dead) so that his life can be spared and Nanki-Poo can be reunited with his father (who didn’t seem that bothered about him in the first place).
What is perhaps more mind-boggling than why, in 2017, an all-male, all-white production of a play set in historical Japan is considered fair game, is why its audience seemed to enjoy it so much. The original smacks of orientalism and sexism. The plot is… above. The music is pretty but ever-lasting and overly simplistic. Of the 26 songs perhaps two or three have the trippingly witty hallmarks of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Regan picks up the mess where Gilbert and Sullivan left off. In translating the piece to a public-school camp-side (mid-war?) setting, Regan succeeds in confusing her audience. Where are we? Japan? Why is everyone white? Or is the odd, twee framing device actually telling us ‘it was all a dream’?
Further, by employing an all-male cast – now her own hallmark – Regan succeeds in creating problematic and alienating presentations of gender and sexuality. The male bodies playing female figures are laughed at, not with, because – it seems to a Richmond Theatre audience – femininity is funny. Bar a surprisingly nuanced performance from Alan Richardson as Yum-Yum, the female characters are portrayed broadly as queer men rather than truthful females.
The end result is a room of (largely) older, middle-class white heterosexuals laughing at queer male bodies. As if this doesn’t sting enough, there’s no justification anywhere in the programme – or in the artistic content of Regan’s direction – for this change. Have we swapped genders just to laugh at men playing women? Are audiences that backwards, cheap, small-minded?
Scenes and numbers drift by without any real punctuation or tonal shift, creating one seemingly interminable slide towards the evening’s conclusion – which, were you to cut lyrical repetition from the show, would come within twenty minutes. The opening melange of rhubarbing and Truly Scrumptious-style dancing lasts an eternity. When they finally sing, we’re taunted by a number entitled ‘If you want to know who we are’. Yes. We’d quite like to. We’ve been waiting almost ten minutes.
When we finally do get action, be it song or dialogue, Regan consistently applies thick coats of practical jokes and tomfoolery to proceedings – the sure sign of a lack of trust in the merit of the original. Don’t worry, Sasha: we don’t trust it either.
The production’s performances are, on the whole, fine. Alan Richardson is a deft, sweet and convincing performer with a falsetto as pretty as any you could find. Richard Munday’s Nanki-Poo would make a perfect Sinbad the Sailor however James Waud’s The Mikado is just sinfully bad. Both in terms of acting and singing, Gilbert and Sullivan’s source material leaves little opportunity for the majority of the cast to shine, with what must be perfectly enjoyable voices set to drone repeatedly to chintzy schmaltz.
The design is a perfectly recyclable Christmas show (perhaps Sinbad is already in the works) with versatile and well-used tents acting as entrances, exits, vehicles and… tents. Lighting seems a little dull, never reminding the audience (or actors) to perk up for an upcoming number. Holly Hughes’ choreography is sufficiently traditional and Musical Director Richard Baker carries the weight of the keys well.
Although it remains a firm fan favourite, and this production has and will continue to receive praise, for me The Mikado is neither clever nor funny, and is more than a little uncomfortable. The production itself feels baggy and hides a multitude of sins behind it’s ‘exciting’ ‘innovative’ all-male aesthetic.
With an ever expanding catalogue, to drag this drab, dusty show once again from the back of the musical theatre closet – at the expense of those so often confined to it – is artistically lazy and morally dubious. The performances are pleasant but – to mimic Gilbert – this is a protracted, parochial, pointless, problematic and plain poor-taste pantomime. Poo-poo.