Mike Leigh’s Mikado is an Audience Pleaser

Gilbert & Sullivan. The Pirates of Penzance: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / David Parry (conductor), Coliseum, London, 9.5.2015. (CC)

Major-General Stanley: Andrew Shore
The Pirate King: Joshua Bloom
Samuel: Alexander Robin Baker
Samuel: Robert Murray
Sergeant of Police: Jonathan Lemalu
Mabel  : Claudia Boyle
Edith: Soraya Mafi
Kate: Angharad Lyddon
Isabel: Lydia Marchione
Ruth: Rebecca de Pont Davies

Director: Mike Leigh
Designer: Alison Chitty
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Choreographer: Francesca Jaynes

The folks at the Coliseum seem to have a particular talent at keeping the quintessentially English flame of Gilbert and Sullivan alight. Jonathan Miller’s clever and oh-so-witty productions with their slights of hand and their inserted references to contemporary phenomena as varied as the current Prime Minister and Pippa Middleton’s bum have done seat sales no harm at all, and deservedly so. After all, The Mikado thus clothed has been revived 13 times in 28 years (and rears its head again this Autumn). From the hand of film director and G&S superfan Mike Leigh, President of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and the W. S. Gilbert Society and author and director of the 1999 BAFTA winning film Topsy Turvy, centred around The Mikado, comes this latest take, a take so immediately popular that two extra performances have been added to the run. And how different it is!

Leigh clearly favours simple colours, realised by Alison Chitt’s designs, effective in creating atmospheres yet in and of themselves non-interventionist. Projections of birds at the outset of the acts give the flavour of what is to come (an owl fairly obviously mirroring a nocturnal setting, for example), while circular stagings that expand and contract to offer narrowings-in which may or may not refer to a camera shutter/zoom. The image of the ship, with the stage acting as terra firma, is again, simple and effective. Costumes though are of the period variety, and charmingly so. Policeman look blessedly like old-fashioned policemen, young girls looks charming and so innocent. There is much joy to be gleaned from such an approach. The music speaks – joking and moving by turns – naturally and without any sense of forcing. It will be interesting to see if Leigh’s approach musters nearly 30 years-worth of revivals, for his approach despite its strong colours is not of the in-your-face variety.

A shame Andrew Shore’s patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” went awry, with a difference of opinion between pit and stage and a cracking speed whose velocity whisked away a few too many of the words with it. Shore is a magnificent stage presence, one of the Alberichs of our times and recently Beckmesser in Mastersingers at St Martin’s Lane. He excels in British comedy as well as Wagnerian, it appears, and his delivery frequently delicious. Talking of delicious characterisation, the mezzo Rebecca de Pont Davies is astonishing as Ruth, the “piratical maid of all work”.

Joshua Bloom is a terrific Pirate King, looking the part perfectly as well as singing with a rounded, rich tone. The young and very much up and coming Claudia Boyle delivered the role of Mabel with wonderful freshness, and Jonathan Lemalu was a super parody of a Police Sergeant while managing to deliver everything with impeccable musicality throughout. Robert Murray is a good Frederic – in any other company he would be outstanding – while Alexander Robin Baker makes a fine fist of Samuel, the Pirate King’s Lieutenant.

The odd first night awkward corner notwithstanding, the ENO orchestra shone. The Overture was no pot-pourri of tunes to be dispensed with, but a miniature tone-poem. It became so because of David Parry’s obvious intent to underline Sullivan’s inherent lyricism. It was obvious he cares for this music deeply, just, indeed, as the audience clearly does.

Intriguingly, the cartoony cover of the programme booklet implies a heart of slapstick that is not really the point here. The words “Sullivan” and “thought-provoking” perhaps do not seem natural bedfellows, but that actually is the resonance of this show. Fascinating, and perhaps above all this, musically speaking, it does a great service to the music of Sullivan.

Colin Clarke

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