Updated: Aug 11
Gilbert and Sullivan
National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company
Buxton Opera House
July 29-August 11, 2023. 2 hrs 35 mins
Further performances on August 9 (2.30pm) and 11 (7.30pm).
Here’s a how-de-do! Regietheater has finally reached the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. Director Sarah Helsby Hughes, who brought a fascinating partial retiming of The Pirates of Penzance to the festival last year, this time presents the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company in a Mikado that’s set in a completely different time and place from the original.
To some that may sound like sacrilege, but I’m not one of them.
The story translates to a 1950s English minor public school. The chorus are the pupils rehearsing a school production of the G&S show, and the teachers, despite no thread of Japanese costume, soon inhabit their principal roles as if in real life (method acting, perhaps?). The place gets invaded by the neighbouring girls school, as well as Three Little Maids who, coming from a “ladies seminary”, must be at finishing school, I guess.
You’ve got to suspend disbelief quite a lot – Sarah Helsby Hughes hasn’t meddled with the text at all, the words are still telling us about Japan and Titipu – but it’s worth the effort. As she says in a programme note, the assumption that all foreigners are uncivilised idiots may have been acceptable in 1885 but it feels uncomfortable now, and the satire in the script is really about British attitudes, nothing else. I’d say that if Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula can be re-set in a 1960s British works canteen, as it was very successfully in the Buxton International Festival a few weeks ago, then this is just as fitting.
And what makes it the entertainment it undoubtedly is comes not only from a string of cleverly-invented little scenes – scripture lesson, PE, chemistry and girls’ make-up, the school choir rehearsal – but also from the team assembled for those principal roles, who throw themselves into their new personas. Sam Marston is Nanki-Poo as a guitar-strumming folk singer (a “wandering minstrel”, literally); Steven Page is Pish-Tush/the ageing PE master; Simon Butteriss Ko-Ko/the vicar who takes scripture; Matthew Siveter the master who teaches everything else – and Bruce Graham The Mikado/headmaster, in (for those of us old enough to remember) a wonderful reproduction of the cane-swinging Jimmy Edwards of Whack-Oh! fame, while Gaynor Keeble (Katisha) becomes the headmistress of the girls’ school. They were all in very good voice last night and just about ideally cast, including Emily Vine as Yum-Yum, Meriel Cunningham as Pitti-Sing and Alexandra Hazard as Peep-Bo.
Mr Butteriss, as so often, makes a brilliant individual contribution, most notably in the Little List song, which he has completely rewritten for 2023, some of it so well pointed that it brought the house down.
There is plenty of dancing – choreographer Eleanor Strutt – that effectively bridges the gap between traditional G&S hoofing and something rather more up-to-date.
Musically too, the show is top-notch. The National Festival Orchestra plays very well. and conductor Murray Hipkin is a master of the craft: faster songs bouncing and zipping with life, sentimental ones often quite touching. Butteriss’s On a tree by a river, delivered so gently you could hear a pin drop, was a high-spot.
Info and tickets here