Japanese high jinks come to Boxmoor Playhouse on Saturday night, as the curtain goes up on the Hemel Hempstead Theatre Company spring production.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s evergreen The Mikado is the chosen work, but what is it about the duo’s work that still makes it so popular with audiences more than 100 years after it was first performed?
Pen Robinson, who is directing the Boxmoor show, reckons the recipe is still hard to beat.
She says: “I’m a huge fan of W S Gilbert, who wrote such impeccable lyrics and dialogue that we are still laughing at his words more than a century later.
“This show is particularly well scripted, with a delightful, farce-like plot in which the leading character’s dilemma gets worse all the time, and whatever he does just lands him in more hot water.
“The dialogue throughout is full of wit, and there are plenty of lawyer jokes, which never really go out of date, do they?
“I must say, also, that Sullivan’s music is wonderful. Every one of his shows that I’ve ever been involved with has great handfuls of really lovely, singable tunes—and the reason we generally don’t leave the theatre humming them is that there are just so many!
“This show has A Wand’ring Minstrel I, I’ve Got A Little List, Three Little Maids From School and Tit Willow, and many more, and I’m pleased to say we have a cast who can do them justice.”
“We like to put on as wide a variety of shows as possible. Last year we did Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, next year it will be Guys & Dolls which happens to be my favourite musical in the world, but which doesn’t give the chorus anywhere near the level of involvement they get with Gilbert & Sullivan.
“I don’t think there is any other kind of musical in which the chorus has so much to do.”
The Mikado was the first Gilbert & Sullivan production Pen was involved with when she joined the company back in 1988
“I remember at the time being a little disappointed that it was G&S rather than a modern musical, as I was under the impression that G&S shows were stuffy and old-fashioned.
“I soon discovered the fun of being in one of these shows—lots to sing, plenty of stage time... these things matter when you’re in the chorus!”
Since then Pen has not only appeared in other G&S shows but directed HMS Pinafore, Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance.
There will be modern references to be enjoyed when the show is staged.
Pen said: “Despite my firm belief that nobody writes better lyrics than W S Gilbert, of course we have played around with Ko Ko’s ‘little list’.
“These shows were written for and about their contemporaries, and I think that particular song is an instance where modern productions really need to rewrite for our contemporaries.
“Actually, that set of lyrics is the only song I’ve so far encountered where I really don’t like the original – it’s full of prejudices we’ve outgrown.
“Once you get started on a little list of society’s offenders who might well be underground, it’s easier to keep going than to stop!
“We’re not doing the whole show in modern dress, not least because I love the pretty kimonos, but it seemed to me that presenting the residents of Titipu as our contemporaries would make it clear to our audiences that this show still works today.
“And I’ve also sneaked in some moves which would be awfully familiar to anyone who’s been going to Body Balance classes...”
The company has had to battle through a weary winter and illness galore to get ready for the run.
“Almost all our principals have succumbed to illness at some point, and several of the chorus, too,” said Pen.
“It has often been necessary to abandon the scheduled rehearsal and do scenes with whichever principals are available.
“In previous years, we’ve had six months to rehearse a musical, but this one we’ve done in less than four.
“It has meant everyone has had to do a lot more work on their own, learning music, lyrics and lines, but they have worked very hard to get it right.”
And the principal performers being much in demand for other projects hasn’t helped.
Some of the cast can count that 1989 Mikado among their credits, some are relatives newcomers and for one of the principals, it’s a D’Oyly Carte debut.
But Pen is quick to stress that being on stage is just part of it.
She said: “We are extremely fortunate to have a very skilled set construction team and a remarkably talented scenic artist, Grahame Tomkins.”
And the audience has a part to play, too.
For this production, a supper theatre format has been adopted.
Pen said: “The audience will be seated at tables instead of in rows.
“When you arrive, a waiter or waitress will take your order for drinks, so you can enjoy a glass of something as you watch.
“Supper will be served during the interval—and at our matinée performance on Sunday there will be afternoon tea.”
The curtain goes up on Saturday at 7.30pm.
The matinee the following afternoon is at 2.30pm and then there’s a break before the performances begin again on Thursday, April 25, with further shows on the Friday and Saturday.
Evening tickets are £15 and the Sunday matinée is £12.50 – visit www.boxmoorplayhouse.co.uk for booking details.
Nanki Poo Andrew Whelan
Pooh Bah Terry Casserley
Pish Tush James Pennistone
Ko Ko Marlon Gill
Yum Yum Corinne Hart
Pitti Sing Pippa Taylor
Peep Bo Mariam Gaballa-Gill
Katisha Sue Reynolds
The Mikado Nick Heritage