The Pigeon Man / God Bless Thee Jacky Maddison

Tom Hadaway
Part of the Tom Hadaway Festival, Customs House, South Shields

Tom Hadaway is, quite rightly, regarded as the North East's leading playwright and, as he celebrates his eightieth birthday this year, he is being celebrated in a month-long festival in theatres amateur and professional across the region.

The problem with regional writers such as Hadaway is that they tend to be known for their depictions of the region's life and thus their work is unknown beyond the region. So it is with Hadaway, even though in his long career he has written for national television. It is unfair, for his work deals with universal themes and, although the setting for his plays is the area he knows best, the fishing community of North Tyneside where he began his working life, they have a resonance which goes well beyond the narrow confines of that fishing community.

The first play on the Customs House bill, God Bless Thee Jacky Maddison, deals with the relationship (or lack of it) between the fishing community of Cullercoats and the "pit yackers" - the miners - of Backworth, just a few miles inland, in, one assumes, the years prior to the First World War. Forty year old pitman Jacky Maddison and fishwife Ann, whose husband had been killed at sea a year earlier, are in love, but they are separated by more than those few miles. Pitmen are chapel, fisherfolk are Catholic, but the gulf that separates them is even greater than that, for the fisherfolk are so interdependent that the loss, whether through death or outside marriage, of one adversely affects all. Although the play does not reach a conclusion - it is, like so many of Hadaway's plays, a picture of a moment in a situation - we are left in no doubt that this love, like that of Romeo and Juliet or Tony and Maria, is doomed from the start.

It is a very poetic piece, following one journey Jacky Maddison makes to Cullercoats. We see the journey through his eyes as he acts as both narrator and character. The language, though rooted in the local dialect, is heightened and so removed from the everyday.

The Pigeon Man, although retaining the typically Hadaway "moment" structure, is a very different piece. Set in the second half of the twentieth century, it is a comedy built around pigeon fancier Arthur (played by Tim Healy), although - again in typical Hadaway fashion - social comment is never far away. But this social comment is not political, except in the broadest sense, but rather based on attitudes and character, from the absentee boss, through the perpetually angry Gerald, Arthur's son (played by Neil Armstrong, who was Jacky Maddison in the first play), to David Whitaker's Charlie, a slow-witted innocent who is not without cunning.

Technical problems hindered but did not spoil the performances of a cast of some of the cream of North East acting under the sure direction of Dolores Poretta-Brown. Tim Healy was surely made to play Arthur and David Whitaker confirmed himself as a favourite of the Customs House audience with two very contrastng roles, as Charlie in The Pigeon Man and the Priest in Jacky Maddison. Neil Armstrong, another Customs House regular, also showed his versatility as the sympathetic Jacky and the obnoxious Gerald. They were ably supported by the always dependable Pat Dunn, along with Kevin Saint, Kerry Rolfe and Jennifer Brewis, all making the Customs House debut (although Ms Brewis had a play staged at the theatre in 2001).

Over the last few years, the Customs House has gained a reputation for encouraging new writing from both new and established local writers: it is good to see it also paying tribute to the North east's number one!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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