After a string of umpteen theatrical hits on London’s West End, famed playwrights Gilbert and Sullivan appear to be coming to the end of the tether that binds them together. Their latest effort was an uncharacteristic flop, Gilbert (the librettist) is beginning to run out of original ideas and his composer collaborator Sullivan believes he is destined for greater things. We join the pair at this crucial juncture as Mike Leigh charts their decision to write The Mikado together, right from the inception of inspiration all along through the seemingly interminable rehearsals to the triumphant debut performance.

It’s clear from the outset that Leigh is a lifelong fanatic of the theatre. Even though Topsy-Turvy is quite a departure from the gritty realism or cutting social satire that had characterised the earlier part of his career, Leigh’s attention to detail – and his intention to revel in it – is immediately apparent. There is both gentle mockery and genuine celebration of the ostentation of the life of a thespian; we see characters complaining about their costumes, mispronouncing lines, gossiping about their counterparts, rejoicing when their dreams come true and despairing when they seem on the brink of extinction.

For their part, the stellar cast acquit themselves impeccably. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner play off each other well as the two respective geniuses with contrasting but complementary characters; Broadbent is given freedom to express Gilbert’s extravagance and duly does so with his full repertoire of knitted brows and twinkling eyes, but Corduner is still commendable as the more grounded and exasperated of the duo. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is brimming with the crème de la crème of late 1990s British talent; from Kevin McKidd’s posh Scot to Timothy Spall’s wronged lead to Martin Savage’s preening prima donna to Shirley Henderson’s troubled starlet to Dorothy Atkinson’s uppity veteran, there’s an embarrassment of foibles and finickity personalities on show. There’s even opportunity for a flamboyant Andy Serkis to shine as the extroverted dance instructor.

Having said that, it seems perhaps slightly skewed to single out Serkis’ character for extroversion, since the entire film seems to be something of a study in the concept. The chummy back-slapping and unanimous self-involvement might grate some way into the film’s 160-minute runtime, while the pacing itself could also pose problems. Nothing is rushed and no scene seems more or less important than any other; fans of the stage will be delighted, but those looking for a little more impetus and a little less impudence in their cinema selections might be disappointed.

Having said that, an intimacy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work will undoubtedly enhance the enjoyment of Topsy-Turvy, but it’s by no means necessary for one. That’s because the film hinges upon the humanistic fortes and frailties of its characters and the passion of its love for all things theatre. As such, anyone with even a passing interest in the stage will find something to enjoy. The additional materials on the disc include commentaries, deleted scenes, interviews, trailers and a particularly delightful (but entirely disparate) collaboration between Broadbent and Leigh about an aging Lord revealing the dark secrets of how he has hung onto his estate for so long.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Criterion from Mon 19 Oct 2020