Following the triumph of last year’s HMS Pinafore, Sasha Regan and her boys are back with a new adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Transporting the story of Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko and friends from Japan to a campsite in 1950s England, the show continues the signature blend of charm, humour and surprising (in a good way) vocals that’s proved such a winning formula in previous productions.
Shortly before the show began, I heard someone in the row behind hinting that they might start singing along, which served as a helpful reminder that The Mikado is a wildly popular and well-known show. (He didn’t sing along, by the way.) However, to me it was entirely new, and I could hardly have asked for a more unconventional – or enjoyable – introduction to an already quite bizarre little tale.
For the similarly uninitiated, here’s a brief summary: Nanki-Poo (Richard Munday), the son of the Mikado (James Waud), has run away from the prospect of being married off to the elderly Katisha (Alex Weatherhill), and disguised as a wandering minstrel has arrived in Titipu in pursuit of the young, beautiful Yum-Yum (Alan Richardson). Unfortunately she’s about to marry Ko-Ko (David McKechnie), the recently appointed Lord High Executioner – but he has his own problems, as he’s been condemned to death for flirting and therefore faces the “extremely difficult, not to say dangerous” prospect of having to behead himself. Meanwhile, all the officials have resigned in protest over Ko-Ko’s appointment, leaving Pooh-Bah (Ross Finnie) to take on every other position of authority in town. Chaos, not surprisingly, ensues.
Sasha Regan’s inspiration for the all male format came from memories of same-sex school plays, and despite all the grisly talk of beheadings, The Mikado retains that air of childlike innocence and fun, particularly once the “ladies” enter – though I’d have to say the standard of the performance far exceeds any school play I was ever in. The production itself has the charming simplicity you’d expect from a school camping trip in the Enid Blyton era (Ryan Dawson Laight’s set is essentially three very versatile tents; Ko-Ko’s axe is a cricket bat; and the “orchestra” is musical director Richard Baker on the piano) – but there’s nothing amateur about the vocals. Unsurprisingly, in this department it’s the female roles that are particularly memorable, if only because it’s a surprise to hear men hit such high notes, and do it so beautifully. Alan Richardson and Alex Weatherhill steal the show as Yum-Yum and Katisha with heartfelt and vocally on-the-money solos, but also very believable performances as lovesick women – though Katisha’s vigorous pumping of her bicycle tyres suggests it may not necessarily be love that she’s after.
Whereas the female characters in this production usually get a laugh just by being on stage (as the curtain rises on Act 2, we catch them indulging in a pre-wedding makeover – and possibly enjoying themselves a bit too much), most of the comedy within the plot itself falls to the men. This is particularly true of David McKechnie, whose Cockney rogue Ko-Ko – along with Ross Finnie’s self-important Scottish bureaucrat Pooh-Bah and Richard Munday’s endearingly bewildered Nanki-Poo – handles some tongue-twisting lyrics with great aplomb and spot-on comic timing as he attempts to talk his way out of his fate. And if his “little list” isn’t particularly topical, it’s still great fun (and besides, it’s not like most of our politicians really need any help in looking ridiculous just now).
It seems likely that Sasha Regan and her talented company have another hit on their hands. If you’ve never seen The Mikado before, this is a thoroughly entertaining – if quite mad – first look; if you know it well, it’s a refreshingly different take that makes Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic feel brand new.
Sasha Regan’s All Male The Mikado is at Richmond Theatre until 27th May then continues on tour.