In this energetic operetta, The Tabard’s own in-house company Pulling Focus give us a bizarre romp through a blood-thirsty country club. Or feudal Japan. Or both – however you read it it’s fun, it’s smart, and there are some great vocal performances.
The Mikado boils down to a marriage farce and a comedy of manners. What adds that extra frisson of naughtiness is the constant threat of bloody capital punishment – will the lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum get married, hanged, or buried alive? This shows a certain something of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian attitude towards non-Europeans – even a society as formal and graceful as Japan’s is built on savage brutality. Furthermore, the concept behind the operetta seems startlingly un-PC to our modern sensibilities, built upon oriental-ish archetypes, as evidenced by the characters’ names. What Pulling Focus’ staging does brilliantly is to turn that colonial attitude towards its subject matter totally on its head – instead of peddling some faux-exotic Orient, their setting is a British country club, where the tweeded English gentry are the ones clowning about instead of plastic geishas and paper samurai.
Don’t let me make you think the operetta is rather serious. It is not. It starts off from a pretty silly premise and spirals out of control – the nightmarishly madcap comedy of the Queen of Hearts’ court. The text is a treat in itself, but the company adds just such a wry commentary in their ironic tra-la-la passages and in their updated lyrics that we’re ambushed by humour from two different centuries. The ‘Three Little Maids from School’ strutted and pouted like Mean Girls, with the heroine Yum-Yum, played glitteringly by Emily Davies, cast as the unfortunate Lindsay Lohan. If most of the characters channelled Made in Chelsea, then Suzanna Kempner’s Katisha was certainly going for The Only Way Is Essex. It was quite a feat that she maintained her rough-as-haazes accent even through fiddly operatic coloratura passages, and she did it hurling herself viciously across the stage. One gripe I had with the modern touches were the lyrics to ‘I’ve Got a Little List’, which were clumsy in their rhyming and failed to match Gilbert’s tight craftsmanship.
Vocally the cast were very strong. Wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo was played by Michael Riseley, whose soft high range could make a grown man weep. The a capella madrigal section was clearly musically accomplished, and if the overall vocal tone was a touch MT rather than G&S the youthful cast can be excused.
I could list more strong performances, but the real star of the show for me was the concept. Well observed social criticism meeting pure entertainment.