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71 Coltman Street

Richard Bean
Hull Truck Theatre Company
Hull Truck Theatre

Lauryn Redding as Linda in 71 Coltman Street Credit: Hull Truck
Kieran Knowles as Mike Bradwell in 71 Coltman Street Credit: Hull Truck

Just before the start of 71 Coltman Street, Richard Bean’s farce celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hull Truck Theatre, a gentleman I have never met approached me in the bar, beaming beatifically. I rose, respectfully enough, and asked him if I knew him. “Mr Bradwell”, he said, “it’s wonderful to see you”. “I’m not Mike Bradwell”, I replied, more in regret than a desire to contradict, and then added, slightly wounded, “he’s 73 and I’m 58”. After a brief exchange, when it was clear I wasn’t going to convince him that I wasn’t either Bradwell or Bean, he wandered off happy in his delusion that he’d met someone of significance. A bystander who had witnessed the exchange then approached me and asked, “Were you in Emmerdale?”

It was a crazy moment in an evening that did, indeed seem more than a little touched by madness. After all, who could imagine a main house production in the still relatively new Hull Truck Theatre about Mike Bradwell? The same Mike Bradwell who once said that he hoped that "lurking behind the back of every new £15 million glass and steel Shopping Mall Playhouse is a gobby and pretentious twenty-year-old with a passion for real theatre, a can of petrol and a match"?

Yes, it’s 50 years since Mike Bradwell rocked up to Coltman Street in Hull with nothing more than a bunch of mates and some bold ideas, learnt from his training at East 15 and his youth theatre adventures in North Lincolnshire (he actually comes from the same village as me—Belton—where Bradwells are better known for farming and car maintenance than theatre making.) In recognition of this, Hull Truck has commissioned another Hull legend, Richard Bean, to write a play loosely based on those days.

There’s some pithy jokes and gloriously funny sequences in Mark Babych’s production: “There are two ways of funding theatre in this country”, Bradwell (Kieran Knowles) explains to his grotesque landlady, Mrs Snowball (Joanna Holden), “One is through the Arts Council and the other the DHSS.” Bradwell encourages his company (horny Stew—Laurie Jameson, posh boy Julian—Jordan Metcalfe, conscientious Linda—Lauryn Redding and “I need to call my agent” Bea—Hanna Khogali) to improvise characters which he then weaves into a drama—in a similar style to Mike Leigh with whom Bradwell worked in the early '70s. The discovery that her character is a shoplifter provides little defence for Bea as her attempts to explain the artistic process to the police lead to hers and Bradwell’s arrests.

Richard Bean has drawn on many of the company’s early (mis) adventures recorded in Bradwell’s autobiography, The Reluctant Escapologist, including the song the company wrote when the fan heater broke down and they resorted to chucking chair legs on the fire to keep warm. The early days were punctuated by poverty, rejection and disappointment and in among the humour there are some reflective and poignant moments. In the end, the company go their separate ways, leaving Bradwell to persevere in his attempts to create a visceral, irreverent and successful theatre company which he unquestionably achieved before leaving Hull in 1982.

The cast is uniformly terrific with brilliant performances by Adrian Hood, Joanna Holden, Jordan Metcalfe and Matt Booth particularly. Sara Perks’s design captures the rundown, barely habitable environment of the eponymous slum and Charlie Morgan Jones’s lighting design moves us through the bleak seasons of impoverishment to the garish celebration of the fundraiser at the bingo hall.

It should be no surprise that, in the hands of the country’s foremost writer of farce, there are many laugh out loud moments. It should also be no surprise that so many of Hull Truck’s ‘family’ of actors from that and subsequent eras, who formed part of the audience on the night I was there, rose to their feet at the curtain call in nostalgic appreciation. But for all the production’s merits, it’s hard to know who the constituency for a play like this is beyond those who were and are part of that world. Will Bradwell’s ‘gobby twenty-year-old’ be coming to see it and if not why not?

Eloquent speeches were made before the play began by the Artistic Director and local politicians about the need to connect with the community and reach into the lives of students and young people whose cultural education has been ransacked by an uninterested and narrowly focused government. I agree, but isn’t it ironic if, in celebrating the significance of an edgy theatre company, we create something which is polished, professional, very funny but somewhat removed from the raw impact of those early days? The forces of subversion in Bean’s play are the socially conservative landlady and her bonkers son who, having disrupted Bradwell’s devised production, leave in disgust. Is that where we are now? Subversion in the hands of conservatives?

As I left Hull Truck, I took a brief look round the corner for pyromaniacal twenty-year olds, but, mercifully none were there. One thought preoccupied me as I walked to the car park.

In 1984, John Godber wrote a play called Up ‘n’ Under

Reviewer: Richard Vergette