Audiences at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week can drift affectionately back to the 1960s, and northwards to a favourite Yorkshire village, when the TV series Heartbeat is re-created on stage.
This touring production opened only a fortnight ago, not without headaches, and Monday night at the Devonshire Park was still not the smoothest ride. Central to the design is a sizeable revolving stage, cleverly turning wide granite Moors into village pub interior. But Eastbourne offers a quite small working space, and the revolve really dominates it.
Atmospheric back projections are also obscured for many in the stalls by the revolve. Factor in the infamous rake on the Devonshire Park stage, and you had to feel for the technical guys. Oh, and did they overdo the Yorkshire mists, wisping and swirling through the entire evening including the interior scenes?
The technical challenges did not ultimately distract, though, from a warm-hearted and enjoyable show, with acting of high quality.
Erin Geraghty, a gem of an actress, makes a welcome Devonshire Park return with a confident and sympathetic portrayal of Annie Beck, while an engaging and likeable Carly Cook fills the pivotal role of pub landlady Gina.
David Horne is the perfect Bernie Scripps with just a hint of dodder: your favourite great-uncle and the nicest undertaker in the business. Stand still long enough and he’ll measure you for a coffin. And keep your eye on the iconic Alfred, a sheepdog so famous that he has a full page in the programme and even his own blogspot.
Ironically, the roles of the two coppers are a bit underwritten. Matt Milburn had viewers’ hearts a-throbbing in Emmerdale, and his portrayal here of PC Joe is lovely, but slightly peripheral. Steven Blakeley, the original PC Geoff, has more to do and raises frequent laughter in his lovely exchanges with the other TV cast member, David Lonsdale, as endearing bumbler David.
If the characters are all human and quite believable, the storyline stretches credibility a little. A gently paced first half has only some inconsequential plot strands, until enigmatic Irishman Aidan, nicely judged by Callum O’Neill, clambers off the train. He is followed – or is he pursued? – by Jason Griffiths as a slightly clichéd outsider in a trench coat.
Act Two then builds to a genuinely tense and exciting climax, but how comfortably does it sit within the genial well-weathered context of sleepy old Aidenfield? To be fair, many of the television episodes achieved the same mix of humour and police-related excitement, but this plot feels bolted on.
No matter. The loyalists in the audience loved it. Heartbeat delivers what its target audience expects, and it does so with warmth, sincerity and good humour. A happy, nostalgic evening of theatre. By Kevin Anderson