The Mikado, English National Opera

Posted on February 27th, 2011

Not many directors return to rehearse productions 25 years old but Jonathan Miller likes to keep a handle on his properties. They have a habit of digging in for the long term and his wickedly inventive Mikado is no exception and nowhere near ready for retirement. If the ovation he received on the first night of this umpteenth revival is anything to go by it could see out The Mousetrap.

In addition to the many statistics that have been bandied about over recent weeks I for one would like to know how many thousand litres of white paint have been used to keep Stefanos Lazaridis’ topsy-turvy spa hotel set so eye-poppingly pristine? It still gets a collective “Oooh!” from audiences at curtain rise, just as it did back in 1986 when this staging celebrated a century since the Savoy opera’s first performance. G.K. Chesterton wrote at the time: “I doubt there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese.” But that, of course, is the joke and Miller exploits it mercilessly. Long before the Duke of Edinburgh made his very un-PC remark about “slitty eyes” Miller’s staunchly English “gentlemen of Japan” were gesturing to that effect and Ko-Ko, in receipt of a letter from the Mikado, was turning it every which way to declare: “It’s in Japanese!”

The vowels in this production (especially the one chorus actually in Japanese) are so “far back” as to be practically prehistoric. The pert and delicious Sophie Bevan, new to the role of Yum-Yum (how’s that for sexist), gives us Celia Johnson and then some. In her “artless Japanese way” she modestly extols her own radiant beauty singing the luscious “The Sun Whose Rays” better than anyone I can remember. Her Nanki-Poo is Alfie Boe, replete with kiss-curl and eagerly feeding the “Nancy on his knee” gag to a bevy of “light-footed” all-prancing, all-tapping, bellboys and their squeaky room-maid dancing partners: Miller’s sub-sub-Busby Berkeley chorus line.

And at the heart of this delicious farrago, once more elevating the lowly art of grovelling, is Richard Suart who didn’t originate but rather snatched the role of Ko-Ko from Eric Idle turning it into a masterclass of clowning and innuendo. His self-made “little list” – this time “fingering” (surprise, surprise) Middle Eastern dictators, coalitions, Wayne Rooney and Silvio Berlusconi – will run and run: and no, “They’ll none of them be missed.”

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