It's all very well updating the satire in Gilbert & Sullivan's "I've Got A Little List" by including, among other items, "the actress from America who wrecks a West End show" (though it's probably straying too far from the spirit of G&S to include the word "bastard" later in the number). But when Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado and the character singing the song in question, is played by none other than Jasper Carrott, the sound of shattering glass houses can be heard.
In Ian Judge's D'Oyly Carte production, returning to the Savoy Theatre where it was first seen two years ago, Carrott's casting is plainly with an eye more to the first half of the phrase "comic opera" than the second. His voice, though weak, is just about serviceable (he makes an adequate fist of "Tit-Willow"), but he compensates for his nervousness in the unaccustomed role by overacting wildly and in a manner at odds with the self-parodically decorous Englishness of the rest of the company.
Englishness is to the forefront of the production. Tim Goodchild's design makes clear at every point that the Japonaiserie of the story is merely a veneer. The chorus of Japanese gentlemen wear wing collars and kimonos made to look like business suits, and the Mikado himself is clad in ermine and Union Jacks and enters against a backdrop of the Palace of Westminster hung with Japanese banners. A combination of the garment itself and Carrott's mien makes it seem as if he is wearing a kind of lurid Oriental cardigan, and the romantic hero Nanki-Poo enters in Act Two wearing the Cambridge University arms on his "blazer".
Joseph Shovelton's Nanki-Poo has an agreeably pantomime-principal-boy air about him, and Jacqueline Varsey (who alternates in the role with Charlotte Page) goes full-tilt for the girlishness of his beloved Yum-Yum. The laurels undoubtedly go to Royce Mills, who is an urbane delight as Pooh-Bah, the entire civil service rolled into one person.
But there are really only two salient factors to the production as far as bums on seats are concerned. It is a Gilbert & Sullivan homecoming, and it is a chance to see a usually sardonic Brummie comedian, in a white face and a bog-brush wig, timidly tackling classic patter songs a world away from his 1975 hit single "Funky Moped". Those attracted by the first may indulge the second, and vice versa, but where G&S casting is concerned, there are gimmicks and gimmicks, and this one has "gimmick" painted all over it in Kanji calligraphy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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