Review: The Mikado, Arcola Theatre ★★☆☆☆

by Natalie Evans

The “masters of Gilbert & Sullivan” themselves, the Charles Court Opera, take on irreverent classic The Mikado as their latest project. Set somewhere in rural Japan, this somewhat Sheridan-esque story follows the son of the titular character, disguised as a humble minstrel in order to escape a loveless marriage, after he has fallen for the town executioners betrothed. What ensues is a series of unfortunate and outrageous events that nearly gets everybody involved brutally killed. Classic comedy.

Littered throughout the absurdity are of course many little ditties, layered consistently with expertly melded harmonies by a very talented cast. There was not a single note, beat, or vibrato missed, with their crystal clear voices impressively succeeding in filling the Arcola studio without overpowering the smaller space.

For their iteration, the famous patter song ‘I’ve got a little list’ was given a 21st century makeover, listing a plethora of modern day irritations. These ranged from pretty harmless observations such as teenagers spending too much time on their phones, to some fairly bold statements around our current socio-economic climate. However, these punches were (disappointingly) pulled in the last verse of the song, wherein the song itself was listed as an annoyance due to being controversial. For me, this only flattened one of the most engaging parts of the performance as it was clearly a cop out to appease the audience.

In regards to these references to 2023 popular culture, I must admit that they left me quite confused about the setting of the production. In the same space there was mention to iPhones, and yet the only telephone used in the space was a ring dial landline. Every other component of the piece also appeared to place it somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s, with tea dresses, kitten heels and girlish giggles for the ‘three little maids’, and double breasted suits paired with a sexist attitude for the men. The only exception to this rule of course being Katasha, the shunned ex-fiance of our male romantic lead who is subsequently deemed a ‘hag’ and married off to our female romantic lead’s ex-fiance out of pity. While this did lead to a very catchy, show-stealing song that brought a final spurt of vibrance into act two, this particular plot-point is but one example of why the narrative of this comic opera has simply not aged well. Another being the racist undertones of the original, though this version does take steps to make the characters a little less problematic by changing their names at least. For example, Yum-Yum becomes Ms Victoria Plumb.

All in all, though I wish that there was more clarity in the aesthetic artistic vision, the Charles Court Opera absolutely gave this piece the wit, energy, and pace to create a strong performance. The narrative itself is just slightly overdone and outdated.

The Mikado by The Charles Court Opera is on at The Arcola (Studio 1) until the 23rd September 2023.