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HOT MIKADO Upstairs at the Gatehouse Highgate, January 11 2004

Choreographer RACKY PLEWS

This revival in London of Hot Mikado, a 1939 New York original, revived in the '80s on Broadway and brought to London, has arrived now in Highgate in a production by Ovation Theatres; other possibilities for Upstairs at the Gatehouse's Christmas musical show came to grief because of Performance Rights refusals (flatteringly,small professional companies are perceived as a threat to future West End productions!). John Plews and his company heard the CD and that decided it.

The Gilbert and Sullivan original was a spoof on Victorian society's love affair with everything Japanese, and this enduring version was first staged in 1939 in New York, with jazz, swing and soul routines. The cast keeps reminding us that although they can't read crucial documents which move the plot along, they are actually Japanese.

This conceit keeps it going to powerfully entertaining effect through the ramifications of death threats and last minute reprieves. The tunes are Sullivan's and much of the dialogue and lyrics (see detailed synopsis of David H Bell's treatment) is not updated, contrasting with the vigorous dancing and singing, supported by a small band in Rob Bowman's close adaptation of the American orchestration by George Hummel.

The core group of four is augmented at Highgate by versatile singing/dancing actors several of whom also play clarinet, sax and trombone. They dance and sing with gusto, but are miked in this small, but well equipped, fringe theatre so as to have a chance to contend with the band, moderately accomplished - save for an over-enthusiastic drummer and an inexperienced trumpeter who is still a schoolboy; it took time for us, in the audience at very close quarters, to become used to the prevailing sound level. We had done so eventually, and enjoyed the second half more comfortably.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse is not a dedicated musical theatre like the greatly lamented Bridewell, which was forced to close last month, and they should be congratulated for mounting so successful a production. Another possible reason for what was - to us, but not obviously so to the audience around us - a relentlessly loud show is that the sound was controlled from a gallery at the far end of the theatre from the band, and the operators may well have misjudged (and not tested enough) how the levels they set actually reached us sitting opposite the band?

Original Cast Recording based on 'The Mikado' by WS Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan
Sharon Benson, Neil Couperthwaite, Lawrence Hamilton, Veronica Hart, Paulette Ivory, Alison Jiear, Ross Lehman, Richard Lloyd King, Paul Manuel, Ben Richards
Musical Director Simon Lee
Book & Lyrics Adapted by DAVID H. BELL
Music Adapted & Arranged by ROB BOWMAN
Orchestrations George Hummel

First Night Records OCR CD6048

Having deliberately avoided ENO's revival of Pirates of Penzance, which received universally negative reviews, we made the long journey across London (south east to north west) and were pleased to have done so. It was a bonus to be sent the First Night Records original cast recording of Hot Mikado, made in London 1995, the score played and sung with zest and discretion, and perfectly balanced by Chris Walker and David Hunt.

Not for the first time - live amplification being fallible and very much at the mercy of those at the control desk - we found that the combination of seeing a show and listening to a good recording afterwards added up to a memorable composite experience. Diction is impeccable and I recommend this CD unreservedly and, for those within range, a trip to Highgate Village until 30 January, afterwards transferring to Hertford for the following week. Perhaps Ovations Theatre will achieve a better balanced sound at The Wash theatre there?

- - a rare treat to venture into a fringe venue on a windy Thursday night and be completely enthralled
The Observer


© Peter Grahame Woolf