HMS Pinafore version is fresh and traditional

HMS Pinafore performed by Eastbourne's Gilbert and Sullivan Society
HMS Pinafore performed by Eastbourne's Gilbert and Sullivan Society

Gilbert and Sullivan: as old as Queen Victoria, and yet as fresh as each new revival. Eastbourne G&S Society admirably combines the tradition and the freshness, as HMS Pinafore sets sails this week from the Devonshire Park Theatre.

It is nowadays common to dance the overture in G & S, but this production goes one better, bringing in the excellent dancers of Southern Youth Ballet to perform an abridged Pineapple Poll. Their cheerful choreography combines a precise classical feel with a nautical jauntiness. A proper mention and credits in the programme would have been welcome!

Then the production proper takes a while to pick up tempo. The male ensemble of “men o’wars men” look very affable, but their opening chorus does not quite strike fear in the hearts. Vicky Brown, as Buttercup, follows it with her own charming but quite languid solo, and Nigel Lawton’s Captain Corcoran is vocally pleasing and light-timbred. To this point, it is all just a little underpowered.

The action then flutters into colourful life with the arrival of Sir Joseph’s entourage of his sisters and his cousins and his aunts – entering through the auditorium, a nice touch. Marian Pierce is a delight as Cousin Hebe with perfect timing and a beautiful voice, and suddenly the stage is all a-giggle.

But not until the entry of the First Lord himself is this Pinafore production really under full sail. Paul Eccles is simply an outstanding Sir Joseph, and an object lesson to the company. He has energy, an almost impish humour and a total command not only of the stage, but of Gilbert’s wonderfully irreverent comic lyrics.

Romantic hero Ralph Rackstraw is the highest tenor line of all Sullivan’s dashing young leads, but Christopher Peck’s fine range and lyrical tone are fully equal to it, and he interacts convincingly with heroine Josephine, well played by Victoria Langley with a quite impassioned, almost operatic delivery.

Other notable performances come from Nigel Patching, acting his heart out as Dick Deadeye, and his fellow splendidly-voiced shipmates Stewart Patient and Trevor Allen.

With such an experienced company, director Michael Bale plays things pretty safe and lets the music speak for itself, while Lucy Sarsfield’s choreography coaxes the very best that the company can give her. Musical director Pat White is her usual assured self, hauling on the towropes now and again when the singers vary the tempo too dangerously. A very accomplished 16-piece band does rich justice to Sullivan’s fine score.

As part of its laudable community engagement – which includes regular singing-for-all workshops across the town – the Society enlistedthe help of the Matthew 25 Mission, for young unemployed people, to build the authentic set.

For years, nay generations, Eastbourne Gilbert and Sullivan Society has wonderfully fulfilled its mission to keep G&S alive and thriving. Victoria Langley actually shows that continuity: her mum and dad have performed with the group and so, way back, did her late lovely grandmother Vicky Hall. In fact, if memory serves, Victoria’s debut came at the age of just eight, in a rather fine 1990s Ruddigore, when Paul Eccles was playing the young lead. Once G&S is in your blood, there is no known cure, and this Pinafore proves it. By Kevin Anderson.