The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca
Hull Truck Theatre and Hull UK City of Culture 2017
From 03 November 2017 to 18 November 2017
Review by Michelle Dee
Site-specific, promenade, heritage all things that on paper sound great but the proof is in the performance.
Written by Maxine Peake, directed by Sarah Frankcom and presented inside the Guildhall, The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca is Hull Truck Theatre’s final hurrah of 2017, a year that has seen much of the city’s heritage reimagined, reinvented, told and retold including the story of the tragic events of 1968 and the actions of the extraordinary women of Hessle Road who, led by Lil Bilocca, took their campaign all the way to Parliament.
Ushered up the marble staircase by Lil herself, the audience gathers in a grand hall. The Unthanks is the house band and they fill the rarified air with eerie sounds. Two couples dressed in their finest attire dance together, their movements almost imperceptible, they are like ghosts: it is as if time has frozen.
The audience is transported back to the days when Hull’s trawlermen risked their lives, week in week out, in all weathers, to put fish on every table in the country. It is January 1968, a year that is forever imprinted in the memories of the fishing community, when three trawlers, the Kingston Peridot, the Ross Cleveland and the St. Romanus, left Hull docks and never came back.
In this retelling, Peake avoids the traditional timeline of events approach, choosing instead to focus on the emotional impact: more how it felt, rather than what happened. Through a series of increasingly exhilarating interventions and dramatic tableaux, the audience experiences how it felt to be Big Lil going up against the powerful owners.
The sight of Helen Carter as Lil is breathtaking as she raises her voice stood against the arched window of the Banqueting Hall. It asks the audience to imagine what it felt to be a trawlerman's wife endlessly waiting for news at home… The writing serves as both a rallying cry and a nightmarish introspection, with the sea personified becoming a love rival: the very embodiment of the cruel mistress.
It was no accident placing the drama inside the Guildhall, a building that was built on the blood from the whaling industry, a seat of power bolstered by the money made from fishing. The location provides that extra layer of tension as the key figures of Lil, Yvonne Blenkinsop, Mary Dennes and Christine Smallbone break all the rules, transgressing the norms and values of a place where tradition is sacrosanct. It is the long-held traditions and fear that keep the men silent. With 58 lives lost in such a short space of time, Lil had had enough; she risked everything, her reputation, her job, and her life, fighting for the wives' campaign to improve safety conditions in the fishing industry.
There has been much discussion about public campaigns in recent months, promises for answers, truth and justice what with Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower. Maxine Peake’s The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca pricks at the conscience of those who are guilty for putting profit before people and for sending Hull’s sons to their deaths.
The live music by Adrian McNally and the Unthanks adds atmosphere and a sense of occasion. The ending is beautifully poetic, prompting inward-gasps and the occasional tear: the pain for some is still very raw.
Led by Rachel and Becky Unthank, the refrains of "Haul away your anchor" reverberate in the darkness; the audience is swept along in a tide of raised voices all paying tribute to the lives lost and honouring Lillian Bilocca’s courage and resilience.