REVIEW: The Mikado – Rocket Opera; part of Berwick Festival Opera; Caesar’s Palace, Berwick

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An evening of hilarious comedy and brilliant music kicked off one of Northumberland’s newest opera festivals.

This year’s Berwick Festival Opera season has got off to a flyer with a newly-envisaged production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s madcap masterpiece.

Traditionally, The Mikado includes some of the famous duo’s most wonderful melodies, and it crackles with a light-hearted wit, verbal dexterity and comic understatement that’s guaranteed to make the whole family laugh out loud.

Last night’s production was something to behold. I can safely say this is the first time I’ve ever seen a show in a former bingo hall – but it became clear very quickly why they chose the venue.

The Caesar’s Palace, also once a nightclub, was, surprisingly, a brilliant choice for the production for two reasons. Firstly, because of its amazing acoustics, which meant the orchestra and actors could be heard with pristine quality.

The other reason was because the company cleverly made use of the fact the venue could be adapted for multiple levels of performance. This worked well in the chorus scenes as it really added to the impact of the songs. It made it feel like you were being sung at from all corners of the room.

The journey starts in modern Japan. Through the miracles of cosplay and anime, we move into a new computer game called Titipu where points mean prizes and failure is deadly.

Despite the changes, all the familiar characters from the classic reappear and have crucial roles to play – a hapless executioner (Lawrence Neale), a prince disguised as a wandering minstrel (Austin Gunn), a minister with his finger in every single pie (Fred Broom) and those three little maids from school (Rachel Dyson, Tamsin Davidson and Heather Jill Burns).

Now, as we say, we’re transported to Japan, but this is a falsehood. Yes they’re singing about Japan and it is set in Japan but this is all a metaphor for issues with English morals and society.

Interestingly, with this production, as the original had set out to comment on English values, modernisation of the lyrics has created the same effect.

Who’d have thought that a Gilbert and Sullivan production would include girls taking selfies and characters forming a 140-character tweet.

All the actors from Rocket Opera gave great vocal performances.

Austin Gunn took the lead as Nanki-Poo and had a stunning operatic voice. He engaged the audience from start to finish and was a stand-out performer, for me.

Other notable performances came from Lawrence Neale, who was a super comedy baddie and had great versatility. Will Ford played a wonderful Pish-Tush and I was surprised that someone who looked so youthful could hit such low notes. Ford worked well alongside the expressive Tamsin Davidson as Peep-Bo but I wish that more was made of their love affair – it was only touched on in Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day but never expanded upon – maybe that’s a flaw in the writing rather than the way the group performed it.

The person who stole the show was the versitle and rib-ticklingly hilarious Fred Broom, who played the multi-faceted minister who was the power behind the foolish executioner. His flamboyant style and flexible performance proved a massive hit with the audience. He summed up the traditional English toff, which he was very well cast to play – he was able to relay the character to the audience without much difficulty.

I certainly enjoyed the first instalment of the Berwick Festival Opera and look forward to the next production in the festival – La Scala di Seta – on August 1.

More information on the festival can be found at