When someone dies too soon, the feelings of shock and sorrow can lead to exaggerated descriptions of their virtues and qualities. This was certainly not the case when Jean Hancock died last year: the tributes to her kindness, her compassion, her humour, her dependability and her musical talents spoke no more than the truth.
She was a familiar figure on the Bournemouth musical scene as an accompanist to all sorts of musical ventures, notably as rehearsal pianist for Bournemouth G&S Society. As ‘Fingers’ on the piano, she was also an integral part of the group called After Eight, which in the 1990s created a cabaret act that combined comedy with very high musical standards. Nine years after they last performed together, the group have re-united to create for two nights only this show which is, as the programme puts it, ‘in fond memory of Jean’. It is a fitting tribute to their old friend – and one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent in a theatre for a very long time.
One of the secrets of the show’s success is its sheer variety. There are numbers from Flanders and Swann, Gershwin, Joyce Grenfell, Lloyd Webber, the Beatles, Les Mis, G&S – and that is just a sample, as a complete list would take up most of this review. It is a tribute to the performers’ versatility that while some of the 38 numbers in this multi-layered show naturally work better than others, there are no duds.
The cast make no secret of the fact that they are all 25 years older than they were when After Eight began; in fact, they squeeze the last drops of comic potential from it with numbers like ‘Oldest swinger’ and ‘When I’m 64’. You wouldn’t actually know from the energy with which they perform that bus passes are on the horizon for some of them – enthusiasm plus stage experience plus familiarity with each other equals a powerful combination.
John Gerken’s comic timing has always been superb and shows no sign of deserting him; in many ways, his genial presence and terrific rapport with the audience hold the whole thing together. Cherrill Ashford’s voice just gets better and better as the evening goes on, through numbers like ‘Don’t be cross’ from The Miller’s Daughter by Zeller to ‘Vilia’ from The Merry Widow. The return of Jonathan Busk, whose move away from Bournemouth led to the original break-up of the group, sees him slotting in with the others with remarkable ease considering the lack of rehearsal and bringing his fine baritone voice to solos like ‘Some enchanted evening’ and ‘Empty chairs at empty tables’. Penny Crichton-Seager also has a lovely voice, which combines with her skill as a comedienne most notably in Victoria Wood’s ‘Freda and Barry’. Partly to compensate for Jonathan’s absence from rehearsals, the group has drafted in Ian Metcalfe, who has his moments in ‘Have some Madeira, m’dear’ and – with both voice and coconut shells – in ‘Always look on the bright side of life’.
Not only do all five have exceptional voices, they blend well in the ensemble numbers, especially ‘Amazing grace’ (which can be a dreadful dirge, but not here), an unusual arrangement of ‘I dreamed a dream’ and what sounded like a fiendishly difficult setting of ‘Rhythm of life’. The tribute to Abba is worth the ticket price alone – but there are half a dozen items of which that could be said. Almost all the music is accompanied on the piano by the brilliant Jean Holt, who as musical director of Bournemouth G&S Society worked with Jean Hancock for many years.
After Eight’s speciality is intimate revue, and the slightly Spartan surroundings of Kinson Community Centre are hardly intimate, but such disadvantages are easily overcome by these talented performers. They soon have the audience singing along and both John and the imposing Cherrill (‘Be very afraid,’ says Penny as she introduces that number) venture down off the stage to encourage greater audience involvement.
Every penny raised by After Eight Returns is going to Macmillan Caring Locally, which supports the Macmillan Unit at Christchurch Hospital. It was a charity which was very dear to Jean Hancock’s heart, and for which she organised carol singing at Masonic dinners and other functions every Christmas; over the years her efforts raised a sum close to £40,000.
There is another performance on 1 April at 7.30 – catch it if you can and if you can’t, donate in Jean’s memory at www.macmillanlocal.org.