Over the last few years Eastbourne has begun to finally shake free of its historic tag as a pensioner’s paradise but this summer one corner of the Sunshine Coast will be proudly plonking itself well and truly inside a time warp.
Having opened way back in 1883, the Royal Hippodrome Theatre has played host to stars of the stage as diverse as Peter Sellers, Ken Dodd, Vera Lynn and even escape artists extraordinaire Harry Houdini.
But despite surviving an unfair roasting from Sir Bruce Forsyth, who publicly laid into the venue’s facilities during an interview – he was starring at the Hippodrome when he was called up to compere at the London Palladium – the much-loved theatre has fallen on hard times.
Where once it staged regular shows, attracting sell-out crowds of more than 1,000 all year round, now the bill is limited to the summer months and played out in front of audiences which are often far more modest.
This summer though, the powers that be are hoping for a return to the halcyon days of yesteryear as the venue once again gears up for its summer variety show – the longest running of its type anywhere in the UK.
A Sentimental Journey kicks off on May 1 and runs all the way up until the end of September and boasts an array of acts ready to tread the boards in what promises to be a fun-filled and nostalgia twinged trip back to the 1950s and 60s – a time when variety ruled the world and places like the Hippodrome attracted the biggest stars in the businesses.
The line-up includes a Billy Fury tribute act who blossomed after an appearance on hit TV show Stars in Their Eyes and a team of show time dancers who will no doubt high kick their way through some of the popular numbers from yesteryear.
Comperes Barry Moon and Mike Lee will keep things ticking over with their mix of conversation and comedy while Tracey Lea appears as the much-loved Connie Francis.
Top of the bill and very much the main attraction though is a man perhaps best known for his letters from his mammy and an inability to tell his left from his right.
Jimmy Cricket has been charming crowds since first stepping onto a Butlins stage as a 18-year-old red coat back in 1966. England may have been winning the World Cup, but over the sea in the small Irish town of Mosney a young comic was developing a winning formula which would carry him through the next four decades and see him leave an indelible print on the comedy consciousness of all who saw him.
Since taking those early formative steps, the comedian has worked with some of the biggest names in showbiz, take his set to the small screen and appeared in more than two dozen pantomimes.
A sneak peak of his latest work offered up at the Hippodrome’s launch party last week showed a comic staying true to his roots and sticking to his strengths.
And, according to 66-year-old, the demand for a more innocent angled comedy is as strong as ever. “I am really looking forward to appearing in Eastbourne,” he told the Herald over tea and cakes.
“I love it here because there is a mature audience who want clean, gentle humour. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that a lot of the people who come here in the summer are probably looking for a traditional English seaside style holiday – and hopefully our show will appeal to them. It is about old style variety.”
On current evidence, gentle, clean humour is what people can expect from his turn in A Sentimental Journey. His short showcase was built around his traditional half mocking half celebration of the native Irish wit and his loveable take on subjects as diverse as the non-mating pandas of Edinburgh Zoo and the price of heated pasties. There is even the ubiquitous letter from his mum.
He twice teases his audience with hints of more risque material – but pulls back from overstepping the mark. Something, he says, he wishes some of his modern contemporaries would do a bit more often.
“I watch a lot of comedy and really love some of the people around at the moment,” he says, “but there are times when I hear someone say something and I think to myself, ‘did you have to go that far?’.”
It is no surprise then when he lists his current favourite acts as Tim Vine and Milton Jones – neither of whom can be accused of ever employing the shock tactics of someone like Frankie Boyle or Jim Jeffries.
In fact, Cricket inadvertently ended up using some of Jones’s’ material in a recent show. I read a really good joke in Readers Digest,” he admitted. “I wove it into my set and then my son heard it and told me it was actually by Milton so I thought I would email him and ask him if he minded me using it because I had built more stuff round it.
“He replied saying he didn’t mind one bit and I even got him to feature in the extras on my DVD.”
Cricket rejects the notion that he is to variety what David Bowie is to the UK music scene but admits it is lovely to hear from up and coming comedy stars that his past performances helped inspire them to get behind the mic.
And he has taken to technology like a duck to water, using Facebook and other social networking sites to keep in touch with fans. Twitter, he says, is a particular favourite.
“I try and do a tweet every day,” he says, “it is a good way to connect with a different audience and I use it to post my new jokes.” Will he tweet about Eastbourne during his lengthy stay? “Of course! I can see myself tweeting a lot while I am here.” And, true to his word, the very next day he has taken to cyberspace to talk up his forthcoming stint. He told his fans, “I will be positively glowing about Eastbourne, as I cannot think of a better way to spend the summer then at the Hippodrome.”
A comic then who is keen to adapt to new ways of doing things even after all these years. However, for the next few months he will be firmly routed in the past. And long may that continue.
For tickets to the show call the Royal Hippodrome’s box office on 01323 412000 or go online to www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.