/The Mikado: King’s Head Theatre (2018)
THE MIKADO Alys Roberts (Yum-Yum) Jessica Temple (Pitti-Sing) Corinne Cowling (Peep-Bo) Photo Bill Knight

The Mikado: King’s Head Theatre (2018)

“A is happy”


Charles Court Opera is back at the King’s Head Theatre. As a fan of their pioneering productions I was delighted to hear the news. I recall seeing Charles Court Opera’s remarkable and memorable interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan’s (G & S) musical concoctions: Patience in 2014, Trial By Jury and The Zoo in 2015. Now they grace the bright pub’s stage again with another G & S opera – that ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances and became the second longest musical theatrical work up until 1885. That work is none other than The Mikado – a hilarious satire of British institutions seen through the glasses of a Japanophile, which Gilbert became after attending an exhibition on Japanese artifacts in Knightsbridge.

The opera – ninth of the fourteen operatic collaborations of G & S – is a popular and favourite work among the musical theatre and opera communities. (I’ve seen it five times in a space of three years.) Charles Court Opera takes us away from G & S’s Japanese world, as composed in 1885, and teleports us to a fictionalised Japan where they had become part of the British Empire. The King’s Head Theatre’s stage is the British Consulate in Japan. Set and costume designer, Rachel Szmukler arranges the stage with a bright red carpet, a Chesterfield sofa fixed in the middle and four life-size pictures of Japanese art, separated by an embellished crest of the Britain Consulate. It represents the Brits’ new alliance with the Emperor of Japan.

The Mikado (Left to right: Matthew Palmer, Matthew Kellett and Philip Lee) Photo: Bill Knight.
The Mikado (Left to right: Matthew Palmer, Matthew Kellett and Philip Lee) Photo: Bill Knight.

Charles Court Opera has created a production that is applicable to the our time – where the world has become a global community thanks to technology and social media. This is a significant point as some theatre companies have failed to produce a production of The Mikado relevant to our current reality and stuck with G & S’s 1885 version.

Speaking to CCO’s artistic director, John Savournin (who will be performing the role of Ko-Ko on 6-8 April) on the reasoning behind this new imagining of The Mikado, he explained that the adaptation was a solution for a work that was originally composed during a time when Japanese culture was not fully understood. (My detailed interview with Savournin can be found here.) Fast forward 133 years and Japan is no longer seen as an isolated island, but instead an influential part of our lives; from consuming readily available Japanese food (sushi or miso soup), being able to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun as a tourist or owning a Sony television. By moving the operetta inside a safe house of British customs and values, that is locating in Japan, it allows for non-Asian artists to perform the work with cultural sensitivity and awareness. The bits that mock British politics remain the same though, in a lighthearted and cheeky way.

The characters in The Mikado find themselves in a messy predicament. In the little village of Titipu, Japan, a wandering minstrel (Nanki-Poo) goes searching for his love, Yum-Yum, one of the wards of the Lord High Executioner (Ko-Ko), but Yum-Yum is betrothed to the Lord High Executioner, which makes Nanki-Poo very sad. In fact, he is so upset with the engagement that he thinks there is no point in living anymore and decides he wants to top himself. Meanwhile, The Mikado is on his way to Titipu to see an execution carried out, yet Ko-Ko hasn’t prepared an execution for The Mikado’s visitation. So he makes a deal with Nanki-Poo to postpone his suicide in order to let Ko-Ko execute him in exchange for Yum-Yum’s hand in marriage, but only for a month! This is just one part of the tomfoolery that takes place in this British office. And there are tons!

THE MIKADO Matthew Palmer (the Mikado) Corinne Cowling (Peep-Bo) Matthew Kellett (Pooh-Bah) Photo Bill Knight
(Left to right: Matthew Palmer, Corinne Cowling and Matthew Kellett.) Photo: Bill Knight.

The fantastic troupe retain the comical and cynical fevor of G & S in this positively enjoyable show. It seems that the cast worked tremendously hard with Savournin and CCO’s musical director, David Eaton, to get this fast-paced production in tip-top condition. Eaton skillfully performs the entire score on the piano and the group choreographies (by Damian Czarnecki) are impressively in sync. This includes the ensemble songs such as “So please you, Sir, we must regret” and “Mi-ya Sa-ma”.

Jack Roberts’ pleasant and sweet-sounding voice as the wandering minstrel, Nanki-Poo, and Alys Roberts’ performance as Yum-Yum present a delightfully young and innocent couple. Alys Roberts has a big voice as she demonstrated in “The sun whose rays are all ablaze”, which she sang exquisitely on the press night.

Matthew Palmer’s Mikado dresses in a high-ranking officer’s uniform. He wears some convincing old man’s make-up too. His vocal skills are rich as he depicts a Mikado who prioritises lunch over public executions. Philip Lee’s Ko-Ko is quite loveable. (A  member of the audience kept saying “aww” whenever Ko-Ko sang songs of sorrow, including his woes of not marrying his betrothed and accepting his own execution by decree of the Mikado.) Naturally, Lee’s wonderfully up to date rendition of “I’ve Got a Little List” contains figures from different political landscapes, health freaks and those who swiped left whenever they saw his face on Tinder. He is so cutthroat, but it went down a treat with the audience when I saw it. His tender delivery of “Willow, tit-willow” is also hard to forget.

THE MIKADO Matthew Siveter (Katisha) Photo Bill Knight
(Left to right: Corinne Cowling, Alys Roberts, Jessica Temple and Matthew Siveter.) Photo: Bill Knight

Matthew Kellett’s Pooh-Bah (aka Lord High Everything Else) reminds me of a character from the BBC Series, Are You Being Served? His singing was top-notch and his acting potential was superb. My favourite moment of Kellett singing was his performance with the three little maids, Corinne Cowling (Peep-Bo), Jessica Temple (Pitti-Sing) as well as Alys Roberts. Together they’re a rosy bunch of blushing girls with charming voices. And Matthew Siveter as the drag outfit, Katisha, is spectacularly entertaining. He is the only one that wears something close to a Japanese kimono. He also wears red lipstick and red nail polish (chortle). The audience enjoy his stage presence as the middle-aged woman left single and lonely, but proud of her right elbow and left shoulder blade. His performance of “Alone, and yet alive” is indeed very touching.

So “A” stands for audience and “A is happy”, as I saw on Tuesday night. Charles Court Opera do it again with a fantastically funny and witty production bursting with young talent and big voices. So listen up, folks: go see this handsomely staged production and prepare yourself for some light humour and more.


Charles Court Opera’s The Mikado is showing at the King’s Head Theatre now til April 21st. Purchase your tickets here.


My interview with the artistic director discussing The Mikado is available here.

For more information on Charles Court Opera and the alternate cast for The Mikado, click here.

(I was provided a press ticket to review the show by the PR company.)