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Turning Japanese at Gawsworth Hall

Deep in the heart of the Cheshire countryside, where towns have strange names and there’s not a Harvey Nichols in sight, nestles a beautiful Tudor house set in perfect gardens, that goes by the name of Gawsworth Hall.

Published on July 14th 2006.

Turning Japanese at Gawsworth Hall

Deep in the heart of the Cheshire countryside, where towns have strange names like ‘Congleton’ and ‘Bollington’, and there’s not a Harvey Nichols or a Selfridges in sight, nestles a beautiful Tudor house set in perfect gardens, that goes by the name of Gawsworth Hall.

Lots of old people go to Gawsworth Hall. I discovered this last night, when I attended an outdoor performance by Phoenix Opera of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic opera, The Mikado. Where were all the young people? Why does nobody under the age of 55 seem to think that sitting in an open air theatre against the backdrop of a beautiful stately home with a picnic and lots of wine is a good way to spend a summer’s evening?

Thanks to a rather interesting detour down the M6 to the Knutsford Services so that we could stock up on M&S food for our picnic, Gemma and I arrived at the picture perfect Gawsworth Hall a little later than intended. 20 minutes before the start of the show in fact.

With any other theatre this would be spot on - if a little eager - but the idea at Gawsworth is to arrive as early as you like and enjoy a picnic on the lawn before the show. We arrived to a garden full of picnic tables, deck chairs, gazebos and picnic hampers, with hundreds of people drinking wine and relaxing in the sun.

We hastily unpacked our food and sat down to eat and drink, but we’d scarcely made a dent in the sausage rolls before the bell was rung for everyone to take their seats. Not to worry. We sneaked a packet of Scotch eggs and some Percy Pigs into our bag and scuttled off to find a seat in the auditorium, leaving the rest of the food and drink set out on the lawn to enjoy at the interval.

The theatre is set out with a covered, tiered seating area that looks out over the gardens, with the ridiculously pretty Gawsworth Hall as a backdrop. The performance takes place on the lawn in front of the house, surrounded by fairy lights and using a minimal set to hint at the Japanese theme of the show. As the night draws in and the sky gets darker, the lights inside the house turn on, and the fairy-lights decorating the trees and bushes of the gardens lend a magical, almost enchanted feeling to the performance.

Now I don’t know a thing about Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and before last night I couldn’t have told you the first thing about The Mikado. So I won’t attempt to make any intelligent comments about the performance. All I can say is that it was extremely entertaining. The lavish, brightly coloured costumes were beautiful and the cast were fantastic – extravagant and exuberant in their performance and very funny. In fact, if you could have heard the resounding chortles emanating from the ageing audience then you would think that it was the funniest thing ever to happen in the history of the world.

Special mention must go to Simon Butterkiss who stole the show as the comical Koko, and Emma Johnston who made an excellent Yum Yum. The title role was played by baritone Alastair McCall, who gave an extremely strong performance and certainly had a great set of lungs on him. And a useful talent for belching on demand, it would seem.

The oldies have clearly got the right idea. This was a lovely, very English (right down to the national anthem) way to spend a summer’s evening, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. The Mikado only runs until Sunday 16th July, but the open air theatre runs until mid August with a variety of different performances. Click here for details.

Jayne Robinson
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Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado
Until July 16th
Presented by Phoenix Opera
directed by Sandra Dugdale
with musical direction by John Brophy

Photo courtesy of Baird Media (www.bairdmedia.co.uk)

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