In Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, magic — in the form of potions and elixirs — turns the lives of mortal men delightfully upside down. The intimation that their magic has been lost, however, is what sends the partnership of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan all Topsy-Turvy. The artistically ambitious, worldly Sullivan (Allan Corduner) refuses to set the determinedly bourgeois Gilbert’s ho-hum lyrics to music; Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) does not see fit to rewrite them. Then Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese culture and, while playing samurai with a souvenir sword, hits upon the idea for The Mikado.
The Mikado is, of course, a G&S masterpiece (Broadbent’s expression at that moment is itself a masterpiece of face-cracking inspiration not seen since the Grinch) and, with its footlights-and-greasepaint view of the operetta’s creation, so is Topsy-Turvy. Director Mike Leigh, best known for contemporary working-class-Brit dramas like Secrets and Lies, here focuses on, of all things, Rule Britannia modernity (telephones! reservoir pens!). Nor are the G&S players preserved in amber. They’re off to the pub after rehearsal, picking up lives lived between glorious moments on stage. And glorious they are, practically defying anyone who watches not to hum along. A