“grabs you by the cheeks, pulling them out into the widest smile“
With a backdrop of tall slender trees silhouetted against a mist of dusky blue light, sits a solitary tent. There is an Englishness that removes the location as far away as possible from the fictitious Japanese town of Titipu, further emphasized by the main characters being renamed as though they have all wandered in from a ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ story. There is no discernible reason for the resetting, but it is immediately clear that this is going to be lot of fun indeed. With lashings of laughs. Sasha Regan’s all-male “The Mikado”, which first toured in 2017, is a topsy-turvy romp that, despite having only one tent as the central scenic prop, is as camp as a whole row of them.
Kimonos and fans are replaced by baggy shorts and cricket bats in a world where Enid Blyton has collaborated with Morecambe and Wise. As inventive as it is confusing, at least it has done away with the cutesy but dated and potentially disrespectful Japanese monikers. Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s estranged son disguised as a wandering minstrel, is now Bertie Hugh. Central love interest Yum-Yum becomes Miss Plumb. Pooh-Bah is Albert Barr, Pish-Tush, Wilfred Lush… well, you get the drift. Except that the town’s name is left intact. Here, in Titipu (‘titter ye not’, boys and girls) it has been decreed by the Mikado (Lewis Kennedy) that all flirting is punishable by death. His son and heir, Bertie Hugh (Declan Egan) has fled to escape an arranged marriage to Kitty Shaw (Christopher Hewitt). Disguised as a wandering minstrel, Bertie returns to court his true love Miss Violet Plumb (Sam Kipling), only to discover she is betrothed to Mr Cocoa (David McKechnie) the High Executioner.
A fairly conventional basis for the farcical plot twists that unravel from it. Boy loves girl. Both are unhappily betrothed to others. Yet the fanciful and completely loopy laws of Titipu add spice to the conundrum. Unrequited love is one thing – being buried alive or beheaded is another thing entirely. It is highly enjoyable and highly silly in equal measure. Even if the 1950s scout-camp setting doesn’t necessarily have a point, the updating and adaptation of W. S. Gilbert’s libretto is ingeniously witty and clever. But what brings this production to vivid life is the performances from a superbly talented company. Led by Musical Director Anto Buckley on piano, Arthur Sullivan’s score is held in high respect and delivered beautifully by this all-male ensemble. They instinctively know the nuances and can marry the comedy with the emotional force required by the compositions.
The beauty of Buckley’s solo piano accompaniment allows the voices to shine; undiluted, unadulterated and unenhanced by technical wizardry. Sam Kipling’s solo – the gorgeous ‘The Sun, Whose Rays are All Ablaze” is a shimmering example, with not a false note to the falsetto. David McKechnie’s scheming, wide boy Mr Cocoa belies a purity of voice, as does Declan Egan’s bumbling Bertie. Christopher Hewitt’s jilted Kitty Shaw is rich in tone and comic flair, particularly during his solo, ‘Alone, and yet Alive’. When the company all comes together in harmony the effect is mesmerising: a gorgeous juxtaposition of virtuoso singing with the spirit of burlesque.
The book contains many of the stock paradoxes and Catch-22 quandaries inherent in Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. Regan’s setting is a little conflicting and confusing, but once you’ve accepted it, the joy of this fun-filled production reaches out and grabs you by the heart. It also grabs you by the cheeks, pulling them out into the widest smile. Sometimes it feels as though the cast are enjoying themselves a little too much. However, it always feels as though the audience are enjoying it more.
“A mixed bag, some ingredients working better than others. And the overall flavour is certainly enhanced in the magical surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall.”
“Ruddigore” or “The Witch’s Curse” was originally spelled “Ruddygore”, but the title was changed because people (I’m guessing a small vocal minority) were offended by the use of the word ‘Ruddy’. And there we all were thinking that umbrage was a twenty-first century invention. Nevertheless, both Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert were of the opinion that their ‘supernatural opera’ was not, perhaps, their finest hour. Despite a long hiatus – of over thirty years – between its premiere and its first revival, it has still managed to survive. Possibly the couple were too hard on themselves, for there is much to admire and savour in this madcap oddity of a comic opera.
It bears all the hall marks of the stock melodrama. The villain who carries off the maiden, the virtuous heroine, the hero in disguise, the snake in the grass, the wild and mad woman. And ghosts and their curses. It is certainly advisable to brush up on the basic plot before attending Peter Benedict’s current revival of the musical. The offbeat libretto isn’t only to blame – the delivery is often unclear, particularly during the ensemble moments and especially when Gilbert’s tricksy, ‘topsy-turvy’ lyrics launch into breakneck mode.
At the heart of the story is the curse of Ruddigore. Centuries before, the first Baronet of Ruddigore persecuted witches, one of whom placed the curse. All future Baronets must commit one crime every day, or die in agony. The current Baronet has faked his own death years before to avoid inheriting the curse, leaving his younger brother with the deadly burden. Returning to the scene under an alias he is soon rumbled. Well – with a posse of unemployed bridesmaids, loose-tongued confidants, long-lost brothers, and a love interest that re-defines the word ‘fickle’; what could possibly go wrong?
Joe Winter is charm personified as Robin Oakapple though really Ruthven Murgatroyd, the Baronet who has shirked his criminal responsibilities. It takes seconds for Madeline Robinson’s deliciously, innocent yet pragmatic Rose Maybud to fall for him. Seconds later she is betrothed to Robin’s long-lost, cocksure brother. When the other, younger brother appears and has his wrongfully placed curse lifted, Rose decides she’d actually prefer him as a husband. Yes – really! It is ridiculous, often funny, but could be much more fun if the pace were to keep up with the elements of farce surrounding the absurdity. There is an innovative, anachronistic opener which places the action in the present before being whisked into Victoriana, but bizarrely this is not followed through. Had it done so, the script’s rather abrupt ending could have been smoothed over.
It is a show of two halves. After interval, the tone darkens and allows for some technical trickery courtesy of video designer Tom Fitch. The spookiness is underplayed but the surrealism is cranked up somewhat, and the dead duet with the living. Musical Director Tom Noyes leads the musical accompaniment; an ensemble comprising some of the cast, a few click tracks and violinist Luca Kocsmárszky who plays on stage, perched on the fringe of the action, watching – and seemingly judging – throughout.
A mixed bag, some ingredients working better than others. And the overall flavour is certainly enhanced in the magical surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall. You’re not quite sure what to expect. So, at least there aren’t expectations for it to live up to. Taken with a pinch of salt, there is plenty to enjoy and discover. It was written with tongue in cheek and, if viewed in the same way, it has great entertainment value. Not to mention the genius of Gilbert and Sullivan which informs this eccentric libretto and score.