Sasha Regan is back on the all-male trail, and it's as camp as a row of tents. That's literal, by the way. There isn't a trace of japonaiserie in the director's outward bound account of Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy opera; instead we're somewhere in the New Forest, circa 1959, where a group of jolly young campers enact The Mikado, probably quaffing lashings of ginger beer along the way. Why they should be Enid Blyton-esque we're not told, and neither do we need to be. It is pleasantly silly, and that's enough.
If, like me, you were wowed by Regan's take on The Pirates of Penzance, you'll have wept in disappointment at Mike Leigh's plodding version for ENO. Hers was that good. Indeed, in 2010 it deservedly won a WhatsOnStage Award. The new one is a tad less dazzling, but it still doles out laughs and lets you gasp at the glory of male falsetto.
The Mikado is one of G&S's longer shows, and Regan and her music director (and production pianist) Richard Baker give it to us pretty much uncut. The company of 16 includes several alumni from Pirates and from HMS Pinafore before that, foremost among them the extraordinary Alan Richardson, a male soprano of effortless range and volume. Mabel last time, Yum-Yum here, he is more than a novelty act: he is also the most engaging facial and physical actor in the troupe, with a million-dollar grin, blissful comic timing and a curious knack for squeezing the emotions. Richardson had tweeted earlier that he was under the weather on what was a two-show day, but you'd never have known.
Having musical theatre rather than operatic voices allows the marvel of Gilbert's lyrics to emerge with unusual clarity, and amid the lunacy Regan places clear storytelling to the fore. Props for diction to David McKechnie's Sowerberry of a Ko-Ko and Alex Weatherhill's outstandingly well sung Katisha, with special nods too to Jamie Jukes and Richard Russell Edwards for their detailed turns as Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo. And Holly Hughes's rousing choreography brings out the best in everyone.
The ‘girls' roll up their shorts and strike poses, but beyond a nod to Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific they are not in proper drag. There are some delicious set pieces, as you'd expect from this director, the best of them a riotous DIY beauty session during ‘Braid the raven hair'.
A month into The Mikado's tour there are still a few baggy moments and timing issues, and I could have wished for a wittier ‘Little List' for Ko-Ko, but the show's heart and humour are irresistible. Imagine a church hall drama group taking on Bob Fosse and making a brave fist of it, and that's the tone.
The audience at Richmond Theatre was refreshingly youthful, which gives the lie to any suggestion that Gilbert and Sullivan have had their day. It merely depends how it's done. Message to the big boys: watch and learn.
The Mikado plays at the Richmond Theatre until 27 May, then tours to Beverley, Bridlington, Exeter, Brighton, Cambridge, Malvern, Truro, Shrewsbury and Salford until 29 July.