Lots of laughs as Eastbourne Gilbert and Sullivan Society returns

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

Eaastbourne G&S - pic by Michael Stamp
Eaastbourne G&S - pic by Michael Stamp

“Yes, we’re the Pirates, so beware!” Fear not, Devonshire Park theatre-goers, for the only danger in this week’s Pirates of Penzance, by Eastbourne Gilbert and Sullivan Society, is that you’ll break a rib or two laughing.

G&S is safe territory, and yet dangerous – all too easy to go through the motions, fall back on corny characterisations, assume that the show will produce itself. Not this production: it is fresh and funny and full of great little touches.

Familiarity is part of the fun, of course. The audience always recognise their favourite G&S numbers, and we spend much of the performance resisting the urge to join in. There might be a case – and I’m at least half-serious – for designating one of the week’s performances as a sing-along! All together now: “Tarantara tarantara..!”

We have all seen Gilbert and Sullivan updated, played in modern dress, transplanted to to South America or turned into political commentary. Director Trevor Allen, writing in the excellent programme, sees no need. “The Pirates of Penzance is superbly crafted comic opera. Gilbert himself played the G&S operas straight with no tomfoolery or extraneous business, and we remain faithful to the period, text, music and traditional presentation.”

Be assured: tradition doesn’t mean tedium. The joy of this production is that it blends all those best traditions with a freshness and glee which ripples through both music and acting. The pace never flags, the characters shine through and the – absolutely preposterous – plot is delivered to order. Bold primary colours dominate the costumes, against huge realistic sets of stormy Cornish coast and atmospheric castle ruins. This is G&S, eagerly grasped with both hands.

First, get your casting right. Trevor Allen has drawn on both company stalwarts and gifted newcomers, and every single actor fits the role, nay, inhabits the part. From the opening scene, there is a brio and confidence about all the acting.

Richard Woodall’s Pirate King commands his motley crew with extravagant bluster and with a magnificent baritone voice. Paul Eccles, behind splendid whiskers, is an endearing, deliciously eccentric Major-General with immaculate patter-song command. They are the Yin and Yang of a thoroughly daft tale of bumbling pirates, preciously sheltered young ladies and incompetent policemen.

The endearing Pirate Band, who have never actually drawn a cutlass in anger, include a bright cameo from Oliver Price as Samuel, as well as an outstanding performance by Alison King as Ruth, childminder supreme with a lovable hint of Pam Ayres in her rich Cornish accent.

Gaily tripping over rocky mountains, the girls are a giggling delight. Lucy Sarsfield – who also shares choreography credits with Rowan Stansfield – leads them with clarity and confidence as Edith, but this is a company of equals, and both male and female chorus have energy, precision and a real sense of engagement with the action.

That action, of course, centres on the two young leads and a love that conquers all. Lizzie Lawton’s Frederic – the young pirate about to be released into the real world – is engaging, bright-eyed and lovable, with just enough piratical brio. Their vocals are lyrical and clear, especially in the higher-tenor register. And Jenny McAlmont as Mabel, object of Frederic’s affections, has a lovely stage presence combined with a voice that takes the breath away. Effortless top Cs, superb phrasing and breath control, and the intensity and poignancy of a Verdi heroine.

Who have we forgotten? Listen up, for with cat-like tread, the most priceless platoon of Her Majesty’s Constabulary is tiptoe-ing in from stage left. Immaculately uniformed but of course, utterly spineless, they are led in choreographed retreat by Tim Gordon’s gormless sergeant.

Musical director Russell Ablewhite needs no baton, but supremely runs the show with a flick of the wrist and a point of the finger. Alongside him, organist Lee Dewsnap is an astonishing one-man band, quite literally. His keyboard replicates every single instrument. Gone are the days when the timps took up about half of the space in the pit, and the oboe used to keep getting elbowed by the violinist!

Any complaints at all? Yes, one. That aforementioned programme is stylish, beautifully designed and illustrated, full of background information and a really enjoyable read. At £2.00, it’s ridiculously underpriced!

But this production is Eastbourne Gilbert and Sullivan Society at its absolute best. It is a bright, bold evening of musical nonsense, expertly delivered in all departments. G&S addicts will love it, and sceptics – if any - will swiftly be converted. If this be escapism, give us excess of it.

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

The Pirates of Penzance will be at Devonshire Park Theatre from November 10-13 at 7.45pm with matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday.

Tickets from https://www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk/events/pirates-penzance / 01323 412 000