Things Japanese were all the rage in England in the mid 1880s, with oriental prints and ceramics on sale in most fashionable West End stores.
Libertys was enjoying spectacular success with its Japanese-style fabrics and dresses. As a result, Gilbert was developing a fashionable contemporary theme in setting his new opera in far away Japan, which was beginning to be washed by strong currents of Western influence.
The Mikado, when it opened in the Savoy Theatre, London, in 1885, ran for 672 performances, stretching for nearly two years.
Therefore it is no surprise that Melrose Operatic Society chose the Mikado for its show in 1936 and now we welcome it for the ninth time this week.
However, it is a changed scene from the earlier Melrose productions, opening as it does with well-dressed Japanese businessmen (complete with bowler hats, brief cases and rolled umbrellas) rushing to the tube station in Titipu.
Later on we are introduced to the students and staff of the Titipu High School for Girls, complete with jolly hockey sticks.
The story of the Wandering Minstrel Nanki-Poo falling in love with Yum-Yum – the Ward of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner in the town – is a classic Gilbertian plot.
Things get complicated for Ko-Ko and his accomplice Poo-Bah (the Lord High Everything Else) when the Mikado – Emperor of Japan – comes looking for his son whom he has lost, only to find that the Wandering Minstrel is none other than his son.
Trouble brews for Ko-Ko who has condemned this son of the Mikado to be beheaded and thus the song ‘Here’s a how-de-do’ is an appropriate summary of the situation.
In this year’s production, Colin Smith is indeed Lord High Everything Else, as not only is he Poo-Bah but is the producer of the show, ably assisted by Nancy Muir as musical director.
It is clear that they know their respective roles well, having been in charge of the 2005 production. This time Colin has brought his own ideas to bear.
As he says, you cannot do the same thing again and again, and he sets about drawing out the story, which allows Gilbert to satirise British institutions.
Philip Henderson (Nanki-Poo) shows his expertise, not only as a fine tenor singer, but he is quite good at riding his bicycle on the very small stage, and the appearance of the Titipu Town Band with Poo-Bah banging the big drum is most effective.
So, many congratulations go to Colin for a well-thought-out production and a wonderful rendering of Poo-Bah in whose person all the high offices of state are rolled into one.
The cast of the show is a good blend of new talent and experienced old Melrose hands.
Jacqui Budge is a newcomer who brings real freshness to the part of Yum-Yum. Along with Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, she leads the high school girls well. Anne McFadyen has a truly great part as Pitti-Sing as she plays along with Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah as they grovel on their hands and knees before the Mikado, who is preparing the boiling oil and melted lead for their deaths for authorising the decapitation of Nanki-Poo.
I am sure that Ko-Ko must be Grant Lees’ favourite part when he performs at Melrose.
Having the right stature and incredibly good diction, he is a joy to watch in that role, particularly when he puts so many relevant up-to-date characters in his little list!
Of course, one of the highlights is the arrival of the Mikado (which has to be seen to be believed!) and the gentlemen’s chorus gives a great rendering of Miya Sama Miya Sama, which is Gilbert’s only real Japanese contribution to the show.
Bob Smith has the presence so necessary for this key part and makes it perfectly clear that the punishment must fit the crime in his kingdom.
However, for this member of the audience, his Daughter-in-Law Elect, Hazel Devlin, gets the Oscar for her rendering of Katisha.
Her entrance in a wheelchair is very clever and her use of it in standing above the crowd at the close of Act One is effective.
Her acting ability shines through in any part she plays and I am not surprised that people would come miles just to see her right elbow.
The brilliant scene, culminating in the sad tale of Tit Willow for which Ko-Ko gets very high marks, is one of the best parts of this year’s production
Melrose has always been fortunate to have good singing from the choruses and this year is no exception. The scenery props and lighting are also very effective, particularly the lighting of the song, The Sun Whose Rays.
It is a production of which everyone should be proud and it would be a great shame if it all ended with this production.