Theatre group sets sail for England’s Gilbert and Sullivan festival

The Abbotsford-based theatre company is presenting H.M.S Pinafore for the Gilbert and Sullivan International Festival in Buxton, England

Fraser Valley Stage is presenting H.M.S. Pinafore in Abbotsford on April 18-21

Fraser Valley Stage is presenting H.M.S. Pinafore in Abbotsford on April 18-21

Tyler ORTON – Contributor

Conflicting schedules, budget constraints and even sudden illnesses haven’t slowed down Fraser Valley Stage in its endeavour to perform on the other side of the world.

The Abbotsford-based theatre company began production on H.M.S Pinafore over a year ago in anticipation of the Gilbert and Sullivan International Festival in Buxton, England on Aug. 1.

Stage director Pauline Harskamp was originally cast as one of the leads in the Victorian comic opera set on the open seas, but she was thrust into the production’s head role after the first director resigned in early February due to ill health.

“I’m really trying to stay true to the original director’s plans for the show,” Harskamp says, adding she’s still playing catch-up before the play hits the stage April 18-21 at Abbotsford Arts Centre.

She has the experience needed to pull off such a feat after directing Stranded at Westcliffe last year, an original play she wrote for Fraser Valley Stage.

“Once we’re done at the end of April, we’ll get a whole new set of issues to deal with,” Harskamp says, referring to various preparations and a new set of rehearsals required for the trip to the U.K.

The stage at the Buxton Opera House is smaller, which means Harskamp will have to work with the actors to adjust their positions and movements.

“It’s a really huge undertaking,” Harskamp says. Props and costumes have to be flown to England, along with 42 performers and a small backstage crew.

“The actual performance tends to be – after all the months of preparation – just the climax,” she says.

The decision to produce this particular play followed the troupe’s desire to enter an international theatre competition. After deciding Buxton’s Gilbert and Sullivan festival was the best option, the group agreed on H.M.S. Pinafore.

The play follows the story of forbidden love between different British classes, after Josephine, daughter of the Pinafore’s captain, falls for lowly sailor Ralph Rackstall. Meanwhile, Captain Corcoran attempts to match his daughter with Sir Joseph Porter, head of the Queens’ navy.

U.K. transplant Tony Roper has been performing with Fraser Valley Stage since 2002. Now the president of the theatre group, he says he was drawn to the part of Porter for a pretty simple reason.

“He’s a pompous old twit and I like the funny roles,” he says. “By exercising that high snobbery, that’s where most of the comedy comes in.”

The actor is fighting off a case of laryngitis, but he isn’t finding it difficult to go to rehearsals twice a week.

“Once you get there and start the lines and the songs, it all comes. Because the way the thing is written, it really puts you in the mood,” Roper says.

He previously performed at the Buxton festival with Fraser Valley Stage in 2006. The group made its first trip there in 2001 and also appeared at a 2003 stage festival in Waterford, Ireland – the same place Roper made his acting debut in 1959.

He says despite all the festival experience so many members of Fraser Valley Stage bring with them, there are still some considerable challenges the group faces when it arrives in the U.K.

Rehearsals are planned for both the morning and the afternoon prior to taking the stage for the Buxton evening performance.

“With the high energy that you need on stage, it can be quite exhausting,” he says, adding the company will have some preparation for that three-performance day when it executes a doubleheader April 21 in Abbotsford.

Co-producer Kathy McWhinney agrees with Roper’s assessment about the draining nature of the Buxton trip.

“It’s so much fun though,” she says. “The energy is so high. I think people crash a little bit a couple of days later, but it’s such an exciting thing to do and we’re so fortunate to go.”

McWhinney says an undertaking like H.M.S. Pinafore requires a small army of volunteers to function as performers, set construction workers, painters, costume designers, make-up people, prop masters, stage managers, and sound and lighting technicians.

Although costs are limited mostly to construction material, props, costumes, orchestra members, publicity and the venue rental, the final price tag still comes in at about $38,000.

The company has a travel expense fund for Buxton, but entrants into the competition are paying for the majority of their expenses.

McWhinney, who also performs in the chorus, says the reason Fraser Valley Stage is able to pull off such a task is because all involved treat it like a labour of love.

“The camaraderie and the joy of participating in a production like this – the voices and all the singing together like that – is a fabulous, fabulous experience,” McWhinney says.

“It’s absolutely all worth it at the end.”

Tickets are available at or by calling 604-853-4164. Prices are $25 for adults and $23 for student or seniors.