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.