When the Boat Comes In, Part 2: the Hungry Years
Peter Mitchell, based on the TV series by James Mitchell
Customs House, South Shields
On a darkened stage, half seen around the edges of the set made up of dark beams interspersed mainly with solid dark wood and window-like openings onto a plain backcloth, the cast stands, singing “The Internationale”. (Was there ever a tune less likely to drive the workers of the world to unite? Iconic it may be, but it’s such a dirge. Give me “The Red Flag” any day!) But it sends an important signal, a real change of direction from the first part of the series, from a love story with political overtones to full-blown politics, the politics of the left, of Labour and Socialism, of revolution.
What remains constant, however, is the character of Jack Ford (Jamie Brown), amoral to the core and willing to do anything, legal or illegal, and use anyone to further his self-interest. He does, however, get a bit of comeuppance this time round (no spoilers so no detail) but as ever seems to lead a life rather more charmed than anyone else in Gallowshield. He’s also quite happy to work with / for the capitalists whilst making use of his union membership for his own ends. Even his altruism proves, in the end, to be as much about achieving his ambition as it is about his concern for others.
Jamie Brown has made the role his own, embodying Ford’s charm and ruthlessness so well that our reaction to him has as much ambiguity as his character.
Much less ambiguous is his wife Dolly (Anna Bolton), whom he made pregnant at the end of the previous play in spite of being in a relationship with Jessie Seaton (Alice Stokoe), and Jessie’s father, the now (after a pit accident) wheelchair-bound Bill Seaton (Steve Byron) who loathes and despises him. Seaton’s wife Bella (Janine Birkett), however, takes a much more open-minded, even forgiving view, as does Jessie herself.
In fact, the characters are, with a few exceptions, complex and so very real. The not so complex and real are those who appear briefly—Charlie Richmond’s Lord Calderbeck, for example, whilst the same actor’s Matt Headley (Dolly’s brother and Jack’s best friend) is a much more fully rounded figure.
There are, as one would expect, a number of subplots running alongside each other and occasionally intertwining but the performances, along with Peter Mitchell’s writing and Katy Weir’s direction, never allow any confusion.
The performances, indeed, are uniformly excellent, not only from those already mentioned but from the others—Matthew Howdon as Tom Seaton who is devastated at the recent loss of his wife to TB and is now trying to look after their young baby; Sarah Balfour as Carrie Downie as the Fords’ next door neighbour who, with two young children, is on the verge of having to losing everything, including the children; Adam Donaldson as aristocratic Leslie Calderbeck and Les Mallow, Jack’s rival for union power, and Luke Madison who, as well as playing two roles, links scenes together or provides interludes by singing songs of the period in very much the period style.
Alison Ashton’s set is very much more than the rather bare outline given in my first paragraph. By the bringing on of items of furniture or further bits of set on trucks, it can convert from the poorest of households to the richest in moments as, under the direction of movement director Malcolm Shields, the cast bring them on and off smoothly and efficiently—even the removal of a coat is choreographed!
Finally, sound by Nick John Williams and lighting by Kev Tweedy make their contribution to the creation of the right atmosphere, and of course Katy Weir weaves together all these strands to create another compelling retelling of an iconic North East story.
I enjoyed the first one but this one is better still, deeper and, in its political content, so relevant to our times. Almost all of the actors and creative team were concerned in the first episode too so we have what is effectively a Gallowshield repertory company, all ready for the third episode. The plans are there, the option is open, now it all depends on the audience. If they want Part 3—and frankly they’d be mad not to!—Part 3 they will get, so promises Customs House Executive Director Ray Spencer.
It’s the Customs House’s 25th birthday this year. What better way to celebrate than with a first class stage performance of a NE TV classic?
Reviewer: Peter Lathan