Get Up and Tie Your Fingers

Ann Coburn, with music by Karen Wimhurst
The Customs House and the Guild of Lillians
Customs House, South Shields

Barbara Marten (Jean) and Samantha Foley (Molly)
Samantha Foley (Molly), Sian Mannifield (Janet) and Barbara Marten (Jean)

In the nineteenth century, as the vast shoals of herring—the "silver darlings"—travelled down the east coast of Britain from Wick in Scotland, they were followed by the herring lasses who would join the local fishwives in every port to gut, salt and pack the herring as they were brought ashore by the local fishing fleet.

They were organised into teams of three, each consisting of two gutters and a packer, who were roused from their beds by the call to "get up and tie your fingers"—to wrap their fingers in cloth to protect them from the salt and the knives—as the fleet came in.

Then, in October 1881 at Eyemouth in the Borders, a sudden storm sank twenty boats, killing 129 men and boys.

Get Up and Tie Your Fingers tells this story through the eyes of three women who were deeply affected by the tragedy: Jean (Barbara Marten) who has already lost many of her family to cholera, her teenage daughter Molly (Samantha Foley) and neighbour Janet (Sian Mannifield).

The three actors are joined by a choir (Custom Voices, the venue's own choir) who, in Greek tragedy style, portray the local women, commenting and expanding on the action in music which mixes traditional folk songs with Karen Wimhurst's plaintive compositions.

It's a story of loss; not just the loss caused by the Eyemouth disaster but the constant threat to life from diseases such as cholera and the hard life which these people had. It's a story of hardship but also of the survival of the human spirit, of courage in the face of adversity, and, ultimately, of hope. It is deeply moving.

The multi-level but simple set (by Alison Ashton) is effective both in presenting Jean and Molly's home and the harbour and in the way it provides the opportunity for beautiful stage pictures during the appearances of the choir.

The play is just part of the Follow the Herring multi-art form package, for it comes with an exhibition based on the Customs House knitting exhibition Casting Off... A Coat for a Boat of 2009 to which knitters from all the venues to which it is touring have contributed and, of course, at each venue, a different local choir appears.

The tour continues to Kings Lynn, Hartlepool, Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth, Margate, Folkestone and Hastings.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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