The Filleting Machine

Tom Hadaway

Blowin’ a Hooley Theatre

The Low Lights Tavern, North Shields

On 01 June 2017

Review by Peter Lathan

Written in the seventies, performed on stage by Newcastle’s Live Theatre, filmed by Amber Films (also Newcastle) and set on the notorious Ridges Estate in North Shields, The Filleting Machine’s working class credentials are impeccable.

Tom Hadaway based it on people he knew when he worked on North Shields’ Fish Quay from the age of 14; Live Theatre began in the seventies with a Socialist commitment to the class struggle; Amber Films was (and is) devoted to documenting the life of the North East’s working class, and, although the Ridges Estate later became The Meadow Well, the change of name did nothing to improve the lives of the residents and in September 1991 riots erupted in which hundreds took part in looting, vandalism and even arson.

But to regard The Filleting Machine simply as a working class play, with all that that implies, is misleading. It’s a domestic drama set in a working class household. Ma wants 15-year-old Davy to get a job in the Town Clerk’s office, Da wants him to follow in his footsteps. He's a skilled man; he and his knife can fillet fish by the stone (weight) and, on a good day, earn a lot of money. However, as Ma points out, the office job may pay less but the pay is consistent—and there’s no stink of fish!

As for Davey, he wants to work on the Fish Quay and, indeed, not only has he been offered a job, he’s taken it. And that job is going to have a major impact…

It’s a play about self-image. How does a man define himself? For Da, he is his job. If the job goes, where does that leave him? What has he got?

Hadaway creates strong, realistic characters. Ma and Da are each convinced of their own rightness and certain that they know what is best for the children. Da, who has been drinking heavily before arriving home, is full of aggression but Ma is more than a match for him, and Harriet Ghost and Micky McGregor bring them to full life and sparks really fly!

William Wyn Davies, who seems to be cornering the market in strong parts for young boys after playing 10-year-old Matthew in Lee Mattinson’s Wytch last year, is Davy, who has his own ideas about what his future should be but wants to avoid conflict if he can. Sister Alice (Erin Mullen) has little to say but is clearly—and with keen interest—taking it all in, possibly preparing for the time (which shall surely come) when she too will be in conflict with one or other of her parents. Music could perhaps become the cause of her conflict. She enjoys listening to her tapes and her school report says she’s good at Music—and Ma’s already thinking she should have piano lessons…

The Low Lights is a tiny venue, a very intimate venue, and director Catherine Scott has chosen to play the piece in-the-round, which makes for massive intimacy: not only do we feel right on top of the action but the actors are having to negotiate their way around our feet. We are not flies on the wall; we’re almost sat at the table with them as they eat their meal—chips, mushy peas and the venue’s excellent pies which we can smell we are so close!

Scott’s tight direction and the cast’s really focused performances make this 40-minute play (it is only a one-acter) riveting and thought-provoking and we are reminded that how we define ourselves is a problem which every generation has to answer for itself. It continues to resonate forty years later.

The Filleting Machine tours to The Exchange, North Shields on Wednesday 7 June, Wallsend Memorial Hall on Friday 9 June and Saturday 10 June, The Customs House, South Shields on Friday 16 June, Byker & Heaton Union Club, Newcastle on Saturday 24 June and Old Low Light Heritage Centre, North Shields on Friday 4 August.