When The Boat Comes In Part 2: The Hungry Years
South Shields Customs House
Until Saturday 28th September 2019
The Customs House continues to create shows about its local community. A bright star in the South Shields cultural scene, they have taken the brave step to create a sequel to their successful 2018 reboot of the TV show which ran from 1976 and 1981. While sequels are a major money spinner in the film industry, they occur less frequently on the stage. So, the first question is “did you need to see the first show?”
“Part 2” is intended to be a stand alone show so that you can start following the show from this stage. The programme has a brief summary of the last show which helps provide a context to the new show. Indeed, without buying a programme the performance does just about enough to introduce each character and the reasons why they are interacting with one another in a particular way. Steve Byron, as Bill Seaton, quickly sets his stall out when he finds lead character Jack Ford in the bar. The history between most of the characters is re-revealed over the next 20 minutes, as would be normal in a stand-alone play – thus this show has probably done enough for someone to see this instalment without seeing the first one.
Whereas part one was looking at the effects of returning from the First World War, writer Peter Mitchell now looks at the “Hunger Years” that followed. Peter is the son of the original TV series screenwriter and he continues to be faithful to the original source material.
Jack Ford’s (Jamie Brown) story here starts with him now married to Dolly (Anna Bolton), the mother of his unborn baby. He may be missing meals and out of work but he is doing well when compared to his neighbours. TB and consumption are claiming lives leaving widows like Carrie (Sarah Balfour) with kids to feed and no means to pay the rent. Indeed, the show begins with a funeral at the Seaton family. Jack had previously dated Jessie (Alice Stokoe) and her dad (Steve Byron) has not forgiven him for his later indiscretion. Her mother Bella (Janine Birkett) and brother Tom (Matthew Howdon) are more forgiving towards Jack.
But the thing is: Jack is all about Jack. He is a survivor and adapts to whatever situation he finds himself in. Jack finds work thanks to Horatio Manners (Steve Byron) which involves using his cunning against Lord Calderbeck (Charlie Richmond) and his irritating nephew Leslie (Adam Donaldson). At times Jack has few allies but using his guile he plots his way in a Britain with no employment rights and no welfare state that we’d recognise today.
This show has short musical interludes that crop up occasionally. Some of these feature Luke Maddison singing as a suave waiter. In one such moment during a change of scenery his version of Mack The Knife turns into Jack The Knife which become a real earworm on the way home and it was still going on in my head at the end of the night. Luke should consider doing a big band swing album – he really has the voice for it. He is also a great versatile actor, that we’ve seen on many occasions in a wide variety of roles, and he was different again later in the show when he appears as the political agitator Sidney Poskett.
Talking of adaptive actors, Alice Stokoe, Adam Donaldson, Steve Byron and Charlie Richmond are playing contrasting roles at different points of the show. They pull off being super rich and entitled characters in some scenes and scraping the barrel whilst living a poor person’s existence below the breadline in other scenes. Unlike some shows, it is clear by the costumes (Alison Ashton) and accents that different people are being portrayed.
Alison Ashton is also responsible for a set design exposes more parts of the theatre stage than normal. This does help create an atmosphere of the stripped-down existence for the ship building community. The set and lighting (Kev Tweedy) keep the action rolling whilst reminding you of characters that have just left the action as they walk behind the main screens.
The show has a pleasing array of strong female characters and director Katy Weir gives each one a chance to show their mettle when coping with survival and the sometimes, hopeless men. The characters that Alice Stokoe, Janine Birkett, Anna Bolton and Sarah Balfour perform show strength, compassion and a greater ability to forgive but not to forget the wrongdoing around them in each of their own situations. Janine’s Bella for example, as wife of the hard-done-by Seaton, does not welcome Jack’s wife but recognises a woman in distress and supports her at her moment of need. By contrast Steve Byron’s Seaton doesn’t get off his high moral standing and is willing to let the pregnant woman suffer alone. In another situation it is Anna Bolton’s Dolly who shows compassion for a neighbour who has starving kids next door. All it would need is for one of them to be a bookie’s runner and it would be very close to my grandma’s stories of living next to the docks in Hull.
I cannot write a review without mentioning the tour de force that is Jamie Brown who adds Jack Ford to his extensive repertoire of characters that he has entertained us with. A good actor makes you believe they are the person they portray and Jamie has that ability to do this. This is another success for the versatile North East actor.
This is a continuation of the story but there is a different feel to the first instalment. Here, the effects of WW1 are now more limited to people remembering the conscientious objectors. After all, that generation tended not to talk about their roles in the war. This show is about how the nation failed to create a home fit for heroes, how the class structure remained in place and those without were allowed to perish. Homelessness, no welfare state support and the lack of access to health care are issues facing workers on short term or long periods out of work. There are powerful issues on show here but no lectures are delivered.
The Customs House has created another production that reflects the DNA of its local community. Strong acting, an interesting script and intelligent direction couple together to make for a pleasing evening in the theatre. There is also a feeling that there could be a part 3. Same again next year?
When the Boat Comes In Part 2: The Hungry Years runs from Thursday 12th September to Saturday 28th September with evening performances at 7.30pm and a 2.30pm matinee on Thursdays and Sundays. There will be no shows on September 16 and 23.
Tickets, priced from £16, are available from the box office on (0191) 454 1234 or online at www.customshouse.co.uk.