What better entertainment than an upbeat, bijoux production of, arguably, the most upbeat and tuneful operetta ever written, on a wet, windy cold Sunday afternoon in the stunning Opera House at Tunbridge Wells? And, as ever, I’m struck by the enlightened (in this instance) approach of JD Wetherspoon, which, once a year allows its pub to revert to its original function for two performances, with a meal package if you wish.
John Ramster’s eight hander adaptation runs with the wackiness of the piece. Hands, and other things, poke through holes on the side cloths of Bridget Kimak’s set and her costumes range from Pierrot to Alice in Wonderland with a splendid, massive, shiny yellow suit and chrysanthemum-topped headdress for a scary-looking skull-masked Mikado (Matthew Quirk).
The advantage of working on G&S with a small cast – and I’ve seen it with other companies such as Illyria Theatre and Charles Court Opera – is that you can hear every note and every word because it’s all so exposed. Music director Bradley Wood, sidestage on keyboard, has wisely run mostly at fairly moderate tempos so that the clarity is crystalline – after an oddly nervous opening number at the performance I saw.
Christopher Faulkner, as a gor-blimey, insouciant Ko-Ko, for example, delivers the all-topical little list, which he wrote himself, with impeccable timing and hilarious precision. The Mikado’s song is, unfortunately, a bit muffled by the mask but I really liked the way Gareth Edmunds, a fine tenor, and Wood managed all the tempo and mood changes in A Wandering Minstrel I. And the madrigal, Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day is, as sung here, a lovely example of a quartet really nailing it. I could almost feel Sir Arthur applauding.
Ashley Mercer as Pooh-Bah is magnificent. Tall, slender and sneering he literally wears a multiplicity of hats all piled one on top of another. He oozes stage presence and his bass voice is resonant and authoritive.
The larger-than-life Susan Moore is terrific as Katisha too. She has an old fashioned contralto voice like good claret and acts beautifully as the frumpy but oddly vulnerable and pretty vindictive woman nobody wants. She is also very funny, pulling faces and flirting with the audience.
Every director wants – needs, even – to put his or her own stamp on a piece as well known and much loved as this. If G&S is to work, it has to sparkle. It was, let it not be forgotten, lack of freshness which eventually alienated the Arts Council and killed the D’Oyly Carte company. The trouble is, though, that there is a fine line between imaginative artistic innovation and gratuitous gimmickry. And sometimes Ramster crosses that line. What on earth does it add to the piece to do Here’s a Howdy Do in Texan accents as if we were at a rodeo? Why change the word Japan to Pajan? Why have Mathew Quirk, doubling as Pish Tush speak in a distorted accent which is a cross between West Midlands and cod-Jewish?
For various reasons I saw this touring show late in its run. It includes a lot of stage business with long bendy arms with which characters touch each other, kiss and so on. This is clearly how it was rehearsed last year when on-stage social distancing was a requirement. It would then have seemed quite witty. Now it feels a bit quaint. When this production is next revived, I’m sure this aspect of it will be dropped.