Ginger Hibiscus | Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW: The Mikado at the Charing Cross Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW: The Mikado at the Charing Cross Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | REIVEW: The Mikado at the Charing Cross Theatre
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08 Dec REVIEW: The Mikado at The Charing Cross Theatre

For a moment, suspend everything you know about Japan. Imagine a far off and mysterious country where it’s a criminal offense – punishable by death – to flirt. Insert an authoritarian leader called the Mikado, overlay a 19th century English social hierarchy and now call it Japan. There we have the setting for The Mikado, a revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most successful operetta.

We set the scene in an umbrella and fan factory in the town of Titipu, Japan. When Nanki-Poo (yes, really), the son of the royal Mikado, arrives disguised as a wandering minstrel looking for his beloved Yum Yum (again, yes, really), he finds her the ward of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, and engaged to be married. Only, the Lord High Executioner is convicted of flirting and is waiting to be executed – by himself. We follow Nanki-Poo in his search for Yum Yum, through his hair-brained ideas to free her from her betrothal to Ko-Ko, and his attempts to avoid execution himself.

If it wasn’t clear already, it’s a deliberately ridiculous premise. When Gilbert and Sullivan wrote their ninth operatic collaboration towards the end of the 19th century, setting it in Japan was meant to play on the English obsession with the exotic country, and it allowed them to take their critique of the English class system safely into a different context, to expose it for quite how it ridiculous it was. Or is. 130 years after it was first performed in the Savoy Theatre, it still finds a relevance, updated by director Thom Southerland to be set in the 1930s, but with the same social criticisms, and the same well-loved songs.

The object of much of this critique is Ko-Ko (Hugh Osborne), a triumph of characterisation and just the personification of the fallen aristocracy. With his top-hat-come-tip-bowl, he’s the epitome of a loathsome, corrupt beaurocrat, laid bare for all to see. But the highlight is the performance of Rebecca Caine playing Katisha, a vociferous cougar of a woman set on marrying Nanki-Poo herself. Delivering note-perfect vocals, Caine seems to relish being able to play such an outrageous character and is stunning to watch.

Despite it having been updated and given a touch of ‘30s glamour with baby grand pianos to accompany the piece, there is still something that feels quite dated about The Mikado. Perhaps something to do with the fact it was brought forward 60 years but remains firmly set in the past, or the type of humour which errs on the side of just a bit obvious. There is also something that feels just a little bit tasteless creating and presenting comedy out of execution, and where the threat of arbitrary execution for nothing very much is used as a comic device. It’s set in a country with around 150 people currently on death row and that last year, according to Amnesty International, executed 8 its citizens amongst accusations of unfair trials and allegations of further secret executions. Of course Japan isn’t the only country to use capital punishment, but it’s the gleeful discussion of chopping heads off that feels, in this context, just a little uncomfortable.

If we side step this issue on the basis that it’s meant as a modern revival of a classic operetta, it’s a light, fun and gently humorous show boasting outstanding vocalists, a perfect introduction to opera to anyone interested but not willing to commit to hours of song sung in Italian.

Dates: Thursday 27 November 2014 – Saturday 3 January 2015.
Venue: Charing Cross Theatre
Tickets and information:

Star Rating

Ginger Hibiscus don’t like using stars as a headline; we think they’re too reductionist, and that decision-making based on stars misses the point of a review. Just as you wouldn’t judge a personality using a five-point scale, theatre is multi-dimensional. So have a read, and then look at the stars afterwards.
Okay, fine, but how many stars do you give it? Click here