Eastbourne Gilbert &Sullivan Society offer classic "escapist night of fun" - review

Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddygore Devonshire, Park Theatre Wed 4 May 2022 - Sat 7 May 2022


REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

Eastbourne Gilbert and Sullivan Society: back in a Devonshire Park Theatre as historic and revered as the composers themselves. And this week’s Ruddygore production is well up to expectations.

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Ah, G&S: improbable plots made musical! Ruddygore is probably among the daftest, but none the worse for that. Set originally in the Cornish village of Rederring, the local minor aristocrat, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, lives under a family curse – the opera is sub-titled “The Witch’s Curse” – condemning him, among other burdens, to commit one crime a day for life.

To get too far into the plot details, gentle readers, would test your patience and – far worse – it might dissuade you from getting to the Devonshire Park to revel in this week’s live performances of this delicious nonsense. On stage, it is actually not hard to follow – and it is the framework for a couple of hours of gleeful fun, glorious music and great character acting. Quite simply, it is impossible not to like this production.

Director Richard Woodall succeeds effectively in bringing out much of the humour while also scattering the show, like confetti and rose petals, with fresh ideas and touches.

What to do with the overture in a stage musical? Some productions dance it, some create a stage full of business. Woodall inventively creates a little wordless prologue, with the charming pair of Dame Hannah (Wendy Dovey) and Old Adam (John Kimberley). And once the curtain opens, Dame Hannah gets on with the exposition.

The fictional village, wouldn’t you just know it, is home to a corps of professional bridesmaids – but they have been sadly under-employed ever since Dame Hannah, twenty years earlier, shrank from the prospect of a marriage that might have invoked the Murgatroyd Curse. The bridesmaids, with Lucy Sarsfield and Melody Westcott setting a fine lead, are actually far too engaging to be redundant – but their happy day will come later. Immaculately dressed – in common with the entire company - they sing and move beautifully. The early scenes might have benefited from stronger amplification.

Meanwhile Sir Ruthven is living incognito as Robin Oakapple, in a Rederring that bears uncanny resemblance to Eastbourne, with Pier and Gardens and an added Punch and Judy booth. Robin – the superbly accomplished Paul Eccles – commands the stage, the character and the vocals, and John Kimberley makes a wonderful servant and confidant, full of knowing winks and nods.

Every one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas – quite aside from those daft plots – ripples with lovely music, rattles with genuinely funny and clever dialogue, and gives great acting scope. The tone of this Eastbourne G&S company is assured, alert and living out the story.

Everywhere you look there are fine characterisations. As Robin’s foster-brother Richard, turning up from sea, Eve Chatfield is a splendid foil, dispensing merriment and dancing a very neat hornpipe. Rebecca Hughes is the wild-eyed lurching essence of Mad Margaret.

The story breezes along until a marvellous Finale Act One brings the whole theatre alive, with radiant movement and glorious, flawless harmonies – brought to an abrupt dramatic by the sudden appearance of – ah, now that might be a plot-spoiler… Great credit to musical director Russell Ablewhite, who also directs with authority from the pit.

Act Two builds on that accomplished first half. It is time for the Ancestors to take command of the Murgatroyd heritage and right the wrongs of the family curse. And out they step from their huge picture frames, into a Gothic stage bathed in blood-reds and midnight-blues. Lighting and staging enhance the effects, although it might have been a degree creepier with a burst of dry ice.

Enter the Ancestor Sir Despard Murgatroyd – and when Gilbert endows a character with a name like that, he has to be the definitive Wicked Baronet – although actually Tim Gordon is at worst a lovable villain! His patter-song trio with Rose and Robin is a word-perfect highlight. And the Ancestors are not all dreadful: Nigel Lawton’s Sir Roderic is as cheerfully genial as your favourite Grandad!

Rowan Stanfield’s qualities are proven from previous productions, but in Ruddygore her character only really emerges quite late in the show. The part of Rose Maybud is among the most delightful heroine roles in the Sullivan canon and Rowan delivers it to perfection.

Each G&S opera has its merits and qualities. Ruddygore – restored, incidentally, to its original title spelling, which evidently was once deemed too rude for Victorian audiences – might be preposterous, but it’s a classic escapist night of fun. Kudos to the whole company!

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

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