The Hot Mikado by Durham Fringe Productions – review

Published in Edfringereview

Is there a more beloved cultural entertainment of the well-heeled up there than the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta? And is there a musical genre more rooted in poverty and under-privilege than jazz, born down below in the squalor and slavery of the Deep South, its West African pedigree present in blue notes, swung notes and syncopation? Like the Grand Old Duke of York, The Hot Mikado, a jazz adaptation of G&S’s Mikado is neither up nor down, meeting at the midpoint of these two glorious traditions, the original libretti maintained but spruced up by Rob Bowman’s arrangement and orchestration, stunningly performed under Chris Guard’s excellent musical direction.

All the jazz genres are there, but most of all the score is reminiscent of the big band swing of the 1930s – the likes of Glen Miller and Count Basie – which is fair enough, given that the original production happened to be in 1939, but there are occasional divergences, like the gospel number “For He’s Gonna Marry Yum-Yum” and a rendition of “Tit-Willow” indistinguishable from the original. Far from coming over as inconsistent, this only adds to the musical richness. It was slightly disappointing to see that Durham Fringe Productions haven’t done anything original to the music, but obviously this diminishes in no way one’s enjoyment.

All the deliciously farcical elements of the plot are maintained: the Mikado, Emperor of Japan, declares flirting a capital crime, setting off a train of absurd political and personal machinations, leading, of course, to a happy ending whereby the small Japanese town of Titipu maintains its city-status, the protagonist Nanki-Poo is reinstated as heir, while also getting the girl, Yumyum, whose self-involved vanity Hannah Howie not only portrays, but celebrates. (In fact all of the ladies of Japan pulled this off with perhaps a worrying level of authenticity.) Sarah Hollinshead as the lonesome but fearsome Katisha deserves special praise for a show-stealing entrance and a voice that gave glimpses of the lonesome but fearsome Nina Simone. Guy Hughes’s tap dance routine as The Mikado got the audience’s biggest applause, but mine couldn’t but go to musicians who gave a new lease of life to WS Gilbert’s classic lyrics.

An extremely competent production of The Hot Mikado by director/choreographer Maddy Mutch, so hot it melted the audience’s hearts, not least the iciest of them (my own). I was bebop-ping all the way home.