Pooh-Bah, Yum Yum, Tit Willow and Dot

The timing could not be better. My aunt arrived from Australia on the Wednesday, settled in and was ready for The Mikado on Thursday.
Now Aunty Dot may have been in the colonies for several years, but she is from good Welsh stock and knows a bit about singing and opera and all that. And is rather partial, too, to a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. Familiar with D’Oyly Carte she is also a season ticket holder for the Sydney Opera House, so this lot had better be good. Would they be in tune? Would the timing be right? Would the singing and acting meet her standards? We have booked two nights so I am in trouble if this show doesn’t measure up.
We had discussed the show a bit earlier. I pointed out that it was likely to feature that Richard Gauntlett, the one who does the pantomime stuff. I said: ‘I wasn’t sure whether it would work, bringing the panto skills into G&S, but I think it does. But see what you think’. Was I tempting fate? Dot has a season ticket for one of the world’s most famous opera houses, she will expect the best.
I decided to put her in a good frame of mind by a shopping trip to M&S first. None of those in Oz yet. 
I need not have worried. This is a Mikado of note, a high point in the long and proud tradition of making people very happy by the means of light operetta. Some familiar faces were not on stage – I am a particular fan of the charismatic bass of Bruce Graham – but tonight’s cast gave us a fine performance blending topical reference, superb stagecraft and top class singing. Gilbert and Sullivan operas have retained their popularity over the years because Sullivan’s music is delightful, melodic and memorable. Audience members near me were trying in vain to hold back their natural urge to join in on some of the familiar melodies, from “A Wandering Minstrel I’ to the heart-rending ‘Tit Willow’ Koko’s intense bid to soften the heart of the indomitable Katisha (Mae Heydorn).
Koko gives Richard Gauntlett an opportunity to show off massively and he will not miss a second of that chance, but his blend of physical comedy, panto-strength audience engagement and sheer ability makes this show what it is. Like the other principals, he is a fine singer and delivers his songs with perfect timing and nuance. But he also adds a well balanced extra dimension to the comedic role of Koko, even being made up in an almost clown visage appearance to identify his role from the very start.
Set in the notional provincial town of Titipu (not at all like Norwich, really) this tale of frustrated love, arbitrary justice and summary execution brings us passion, peril and pathos in equal measures. The bloodthirsty Mikado (Matthew Siveter) wants to make ‘the punishment fit the crime’ and is only slightly less scary than his ‘daughter in law elect’ Katisha, a woman whose beauty is considerably exceeded by her determination to marry the Mikado’s son Nanki-Poo (Anthony Flaum) who is troubled enough by this prospect to have run off to be a wandering minstrel (and second trombone if required). Nanki-Poo meanwhile has fallen for Koko’s young ward YumYum (Natalie Montakhab) who is also betrothed to her guardian Koko, who happens to be the Lord High Executioner of Titipu with some demanding performance standards bearing down on him. Bass Pooh-Bah (Simon Wilding) is his sidekick, and Lord High Everything Else and like all truly aristocratic types in constant need of large cash bribes to function in office.
This complex but familiar plot is laid before us by a twenty strong chorus, the ten principles and a forty member orchestra who all merit the chosen title of The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company (and National Gilbert and Sullivan Orchestra) with their evident high musical standards. This production has a lightness of touch and humour that matches the original writing and score perfectly. Anyone tempted to be sniffy about the successful introduction of some pantomime techniques should remember that they have bought a ticket to a work subtitled ‘The Town of Titipu’.
It falls to Richard Gauntlett as Koko to deliver two of the most famous numbers in the show. ‘Behold the Lord High Executioner’ is perhaps better known by its refrain ‘I’ve got a little list. There’ll none of them be missed’ brought up to date with suitable targets for topping including local references. Ipswich gets a mention, of course. When Koko goes a wooing to win Katisha he is driven primarily by his own need to avoid beheading, but he wins her over with ‘On a tree by a river’ again better known by the refrain ‘tit willow’. Richard ramps the pathos up to maximum in his tale of the lovesick bird driven to suicide by the despair of rejection but still stays within the bounds of credibility of a man singing for his survival.
The principals in any show get their chance to shine, but this Mikado has a characterful chorus line up. The ‘school-girls, nobles, guards and coolies’ are portrayed with a joyful variety of character and expression that helps to lift this show to being a most memorable Mikado. They need to be in good voice, with the full original D’Oyly Carte score thundering up from the orchestra below, but the balance works and every well-enunciated voice is heard.
Much of the Mikado relies for impact on the lead female role and Natalie Montakhab gives a delightful performance with a strong soprano voice, while conveying the girlish glee of the ‘three little maids’ with her fellow wards Pitti-Sing (Fiona Mackay) and Peeb-Bo (Nadia Eide). The set design is minimal allowing us to concentrate on the acting and singing and the production is refreshingly free of the techno wizardry that makes some modern theatre rather challenging. 
This is Gilbert and Sullivan for a new generation with a quality that should fill theatres easily, added detail and humour but a clear understanding of what has made the Mikado an audience favourite and the most performed Savoy Opera since George Grossmith first brought Koko to life in 1885.
But the most pressing question for me as we walked home from the theatre – did this show satisfy my aunt? Of course it did – Dot was delighted!
Read my review of The Pirates of Penzance here: http://norwicheye.co.uk/whats-on/norwich-eye-reviews-the-pirates-of-penzance/
 © Julian Swainson 2017
Listing:

The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, The Mikado, Thursday September  14, 7.30pm; Pirates of Penzance, Friday September 15, 7.30pm; HMS Pinafore, Saturday September 16, 2.30pm & 7.30pm. Tickets £8-£35. Dementia-friendly captioned concert, Friday September 15, 2pm. Tickets £17. Discounts for Friends. Over 60s & Groups.  BOX OFFICE 01603 630000.  For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk