Tag Archives: Bruce Graham

Ko-Ko pops


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Saturday  28th June, 2015


A real treat: to be in this beautiful theatre for a special gala performance.  I’ve been coming here for over forty years and would move in if I could.  It’s 120 years since the foundation stone was laid (I know the feeling) and tonight’s offering from the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company gets off to a rousing start with a sing-along for those of us in our seats by 7:15.  This is followed by the national anthem for which we dutifully stand – how long since this tradition was observed at the theatre?  I’m not a monarchist but tonight as we look back to the Victorian age it seems to fit with the proceedings.

Director Simon Butteriss gives us a vibrant and funny Mikado – and rather a cheeky one too.  The setting is Victorian trad with Japanese kitsch a-go-go but, as Pish-Tush clearly signals when he brings on a Hoover to suck up the leavings of a sand dance, the comic sensibilities are very much in the present.   The anachronism sets us up for Ko-Ko’s infamous ‘list’ song – which does not disappoint: a hilarious and bang up-to-date rendition including references to biting footballers and the crooked friends and associates of our current Prime Minister.  Butteriss himself is Ko-Ko, the comedic centre of this camp nonsense, and is an absolute scream.  Bruce Graham’s Pooh-Bah seems to be channelling the late great Richard Griffiths and, like the collapsible cooling device he brandishes, I’m a big fan. Also strong is Sylvia Clarke in her third marvellous character part of the week: the old harridan Katisha.  Claire Lees is a sweet and feisty Yum-Yum, and Nick Allen’s Nanki-Poo gives a lovely “A Wandering Minstrel I”.  Show-stealer for me is John Savournin’s Pish-Tush who can speak volumes with a look before he uses his lovely baritone to sing a note.  He appropriates Katisha’s wig and stalks around like Boris Karloff in drag.  Butteriss’s direction brings visual and physical humour to add to the wit of Gilbert’s libretto and Sullivan’s catchy score – a score riddled with famous numbers, all of which are inventively and amusingly staged with choreography by Stewart Nicholls. “Three Little Maids From School” is a hoot and Butteriss’s melancholy interpretation of “Tit-Willow” is heart-breaking.

The hardworking chorus sing with vim, verve and vigour and you come away glad that the works of G&S are in such good hands.

Present day sensibilities might demur: is the show racist? Well, only in the same way that pantomime versions of Aladdin with Wishee-Washee and Widow Twanky are racist or say, Puccini’s Turandot.  All of these shows are set in fantasy versions of faraway lands; Gilbert and Sullivan took the fashion for all things Japanese that was permeating the arts at the time and used it as a distancing device with which they could mock and satirise aspects of British society.  It is not the Japanese who are being up for ridicule but the British.  There is a lot of hot air blowing around at the moment about so-called British values – surely among these must be our ability to laugh at ourselves.


G&S = Good and Silly


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 24th June, 2014

The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company is in residence at the Grand this week, kicking off their three-production stay with Pirates. Having recently seen a marvellous all-male HMS Pinafore, I wondered how a production that plays it ‘straight’ so to speak, would keep me engaged – I have seen G&S shows in the past in which you can’t see the good for the twee.

Fear not: we are in safe hands. Director John Savournin pitches the tone exactly right. The thing is, with G&S, you’re not supposed to take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean performance standards may drop. Savournin lets the humour of the material shine through and he and choreographer Damian Czarnecki give his excellent company plenty of comic business to enhance the scenes. Only a little of it seems a bit laboured but the show moves along with such brio, you quickly find yourself laughing out loud (genuinely!) at something else.

The director himself appears as the dashing Pirate King, setting the tone for the high levels of camp that will follow. Towering over his pirate crew – camp as Christmas to a man – Savournin’s stature reminds me of John Cleese, which in turn reminds me how much the Pythons owe to G&S for their own comic songs. Anyway, the plot concerns pirate apprentice Frederic (Nick Allen) who finds himself free to leave having come of age, to pursue a career of pursuing pirates. Once ashore he meets Mabel (Elinor Moran) – with her entrance, all vocal fireworks and coloratura in a spoof of showy sopranos, the show reaches dazzling new heights of silliness and quality. Richard Gauntlett is the very model of a modern Major-General Stanley, easily the campest in the land.

There is strong support in the form of some great character acting and singing from Sylvia Clarke as Ruth and Bruce Graham as a lugubrious and timid Sergeant of Police. The chorus work, whether it’s the pirates, Mabel’s many sisters, the Keystone Kop style police or even a bunch of squirrel puppets, is detailed and funny.

It may seem like inconsequential fluff but you can revel in the silly, quintessential Britishness of it all. If you’re not an opera buff, G&S are definitely a gateway drug to lead you to the hard stuff. If you are, there is much to enjoy here as the conventions and tropes of opera proper are sent up mercilessly, while the piece retains an integrity and charm of its own. And there is a surprising moment that brings you back to earth: the ladies are flitting around on the beach, with some excellent parasol work, and they sing, “Though the moments quickly die, Greet them gaily as they fly” a bittersweet admonishment to us all to gather those rosebuds while we may. We are all mortal, remember.

I cannot wait for the next two shows later this week.


John Savournin and Sylvia Clarke up to no good