Fifty years of Gilbert and Sullivan in our town, and still in splendid shape: Eastbourne G&S Society celebrated with a very fine Yeoman of the Guard at the Devonshire Park Theatre last week.
Nine founder members are listed in the programme, but one of the dearest, Douglas Crosby-Jones, sadly died earlier this month, and his funeral on Tuesday (15th) will have been resonant with song. A man with a baritone voice as rich and generous as his own nature, Doug will be fondly remembered. Another founder member, Val Cornish, joined the ladies chorus and the cast included several other long and loyal servants.
Back to the present, and a well-filled auditorium awaits. The perennial director’s problem of what to do with the overture? Bring the lights up slowly on the set? Dance it? Treat it as a warm-up for Pat White’s excellent orchestra, while the audience fidgets? Instead – and far better – we were treated to a lovely nostalgic montage of images from half a century of G&S shows put on, since 1968, at the Devonshire Park and the Hippodrome.
Those fifty productions have been consistently fine, enjoyable and full of affection for G&S. This one doesn’t just maintain the tradition – it absolutely excels.
Yeomen of the Guard is the only show in the G&S canon which is not an outright comedy. Bittersweet, this production’s programme calls it, but the story can never have an entirely happy outcome. It is the darkest and the least frivolous of all the operettas: a tumble of joy, despair, love, sacrifice. And Wendy Dovey’s expert direction keeps the poignancy and the sparkling humour in perfect balance.
Steven Walter’s imposing and convincing set is atmospherically enhanced by Doug Morgan’s imaginative lighting, changing with the moods of the story. The whole show is fabulously dressed in period, and you almost find yourself expecting a guest appearance from Henry the Eighth. The Yeomen – “in the autumn of our lives”, as they themselves sing, and with greying beards to suit – have a splendid dignity and sing with a uniform richness. Equally impressive both vocally and visually, the ladies chorus are elegant and sprightly.
This Tudor setting allows a rather Shakespearean feel. Mike Bale is an enjoyable Head Jailer Shadbolt, alarmingly gruesome and pacing the stage like an oafish Pyramus. His love interest, though, is no Thisbe but the engaging Lucy Sarsfield, who sings charmingly and plays wistful Phoebe like a youthful and flighty Ann Boleyn.
An improbable plot – but no dafter than most Shakespeare comedies – has innocent Colonel Fairfax in the Tower facing imminent execution. (The customary topical reference has him sharing a cell with Lord Lucan and two politicians called Rudd and May!) The sequence of dastardly deeds, heroism, confused identities and a sham marriage or two, leads to a dramatic denouement with happy betrothals and, crucially, one utterly broken heart.
It all requires a strong cast, and there is not a weak link among the principals. Christopher Peck is a warm and likeable Fairfax, Trevor Allen an imposing Lieutenant, and Nigel Lawton and Tim Archer win our sympathy as Sergeant Meryll and son Leonard. Marian Pierce is in fine voice as Dame Carruthers while Sue Davies, who happens to be the Society’s secretary, has a stunningly tuneful cameo as Kate. And Peter Tucknott is a dignified Senior Yeoman with lots of gravitas.
But among this fine company, two performances stand out. Rowan Stanfield is a talent we should see more often on our Eastbourne stages. She delivers the consummate Elsie Maynard, funny, human, passionate. She sings thrillingly and wins all our hearts. What a capture: I hope Eastbourne G&S have her on a contract….
Paul Eccles is the definitive Jack Point, the jester with tears behind the facade. Paul – to borrow that drama school cliché – simply inhabits the role, physically, vocally and in all the detail right down to a conjuring trick or two. He is master of the patter song, with not a syllable missed. And when in the final tableau he falls in despair, at the feet of the lover he has lost, we catch our throats in tearful sympathy.
Well done and congratulations to all of you: those Fifty Glorious Years could not have been better celebrated. By Kevin Anderson.