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Bedfordshire Youth Opera

Mikado, 2005

Anyone arriving at the Bowen-West Theatre expecting to see a chorus of geisha girls and men with white painted faces, black smoothed - back hair and pigtails was in for a shock. The stage depicted the inside of a boutique, with suitable black and white décor and smartly attired mannequins, behind which the BYO orchestra - a group of highly accomplished young musicians who accompanied the show wonderfully well - was seated. As soon as the male (mostly male) chorus entered in smart burgundy tailor's waistcoats, using their tape measures as props, we were all aware that this production was going to be a lively one, to say the least.

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The gentlemen sang admirably, considering the amount of choreography that had been built into their opening number, and the audience realised that nowadays the criteria for joining the Beds Youth Opera include fitness, athleticism and stamina - as well as an ability to sing! When Nanky-Poo, strongly sung by Matthew Kimble, arrived to seek out his beloved Yum-Yum, his "Wandering Minstrel" song was delightfully O.T.T. - no shortage of "touchy feely" here - as he illustrated every aspect of his song with expansive gestures and movement.

So, the tone of the production was set. Anthony Boutall as Pooh-Bah (Lord High Goodness Knows What and full of his own importance) was deliciously camp and proved an ideal foil to the very well characterised Ko-Ko of Dan Smith - for me the star of the show, dropping the "t" in Katisha quite wonderfully at various junctures. Henry Vann sang the role of Pish-Tush well and was suitably understated - a good contrast to Anthony and Dan.

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The girls proved that they were no slouches when it came to movement, entering the boutique dressed in blouses and skirts reminiscent of the mid 20th century, and the three little maids sang (and danced) their trio quite beautifully. Andrea Tweedale as Yum-Yum had a ringing top range, singing expressively and bringing a mixture of vanity and coyness to her character. She was delightfully annoyed as the girls showered her bridal outfit with rose petals! Jenny Carson's voice was ideal for the part of Pitti-Sing and both her solo work and blending in trio and quartet work were excellent. Eleanor Middleton's Peep-Bo complemented the other 2 girls well and she delighted in teasing Yum-Yum about her betrothed's impending execution. Rachel Leaver played the unforgiving role of Katisha and sang strongly, with an impressive lower range. We were only too well aware of why Nanky-Poo had fled her clutches, as she stormed around the stage, but the chorus were equal to her as they sent her packing at the end of Act 1.

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The arrival of the Mikado - Godfather-style complete with shades and henchmen - was the highlight of Act 2. Again, there was plenty of movement in all the numbers and Chris Phelps certainly brought out the "humane" side of his role as the ruler of Titipu. Mind you, his punishment for those who mistreated horses was definitely reminiscent of "The Godfather".

When Ko-ko resigned himself to having to crave the affections of Katisha, we felt quite sorry for him, considering the way she was treating him, but his tear-jerking "Tit-willow" ensured that they would end the show together - as did Nanky-Poo and Yum-Yum, of course.

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There can seldom have been a more humorous "Mikado" than this production, and the audience reaction was tremendously enthusiastic. There will be many moments which will remain unforgettable - the appearance of a male ballet dancer during Katisha's "Oh, living, I" was a master stroke - and the use of various props such as umbrellas and wicker baskets enabled all the performers to show their expertise in co-ordination of movement.

Congratulations to all those involved in this superb production, all singers and orchestral players, but in particular Director and Choreographer Fred Broom and Musical Director John Shayler. The latter must feel particularly proud to see that a 25-year milestone has been reached by a project which he initiated, and in such triumphant fashion.

As he mentions in his programme notes, several former BYO singers have made a career in opera - Carol Lesley-Green, Susan Parry, Rachel Nicholls, Carolyn Sampson, Rebecca Bottone, Simon Bailey, Russell Matthews - and it never ceases to amaze that Bedfordshire can consistently turn out singers of such high quality and delight audiences every year. To all those involved behind the scenes - Julia McLeish, Tim Short, Ben Wiles, Sue Gilhespie, Amy Morrison and the long-serving Andrew Longland-Meech to name only a few - many, many thanks. May the next 25 years be equally as successful.

-- Malcolm Chalmers