When theatre people make shows about themselves it can be bad news for the audience. But, to understand the landscape of Yorkshire creativity, it’s worth engaging with the foundation story of the venerable — indeed, world famous — Hull Truck Theatre.
The city of Kingston-upon-Hull, for the uninitiated, is a sizeable inland port on the eastern side of the county. I say ‘inland’ because although many amateur geographers mentally map it to somewhere on the North Sea coast, it actually sits in a much more sheltered position on the north bank of the tidal Humber estuary. Beyond it lies one of the most remote and desolate parts of England — the Holderness peninsula.
American readers with an interest in family history may remember the city as a staging point in the migrant journey of their Northern and Eastern European ancestors. (Boats from Holland arrived in Hull where their passengers were briefly fed and watered before being loaded onto trains that took them across the North of England to the Transatlantic embarcation port of Liverpool.) For British readers, Hull is synonymous with ‘fish’. The erosion of Hull’s once-mighty fishing fleet by a combination of better refrigeration techniques, changing tastes and EU politics is an integral part of Hull Truck’s story.
Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows And traffic all night north; swerving through fields Too thin and thistled to be called meadows, And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants, And the widening river's slow presence, The piled gold clouds, the shinging gull-marked mud, Gathers to the surprise of a large town: Here domes and statues spires and cranes cluster Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water, And residents from raw estates, brought down The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys, Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires-- Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies, Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers--
wrote Philip Larkin in Here, the opening poem of his major 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Larkin, the quietly dissolute chief Librarian at the University of Hull, lived in the city from 1955 until his death in 1985. The Academy Award-winning film director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) spent 10 years in the drama department at the University and produced his first play there, a stage adaptation of Gabriel Josipovici's story Mobius the Stripper, in 1975. And Richard Bean, who wrote the West End smash One Man, Two Guvnors which propelled actor James Corden to international stardom, was a teenager at the time. Growing up in Hull, absorbing the influences. Larkin nailed it when he wrote that Hull people were:
A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling Where only salesmen and relations come
But something about the city during the post-war era was conducive to the development of artists. Partly, it was the city's remoteness: if you wanted to see Chekhov you waited five years for touring production or you staged it yourself. And partly it was the abundance of abandoned or low-rent housing that became available as a result of the city's economic collapse. (Think 'Detroit' but without the guns or drug violence.) As Bean observes: ".. actors could sign on [for welfare] and there was no chance of the Labour [Exchange, or as those across the pond might have it, Bureau] finding any of them a job. But there is also the very practical thing that, with property prices low, it is possible to live on a low income and still be creative in this city. At that time you could go to [a] shop and buy one egg, one fag, one spud. Hull was geared to survival."
It was against this background that a bunch of hippy actors, recently liberated by the repeal of censorship laws, gathered together in an unheated house in Coltman Street to improvise a play. They had no plot, no budget and no bookings. The radical theatre they wanted to make was in opposition to the prevailing 'drawing room sofa' ideal of discreet passions amongst the upper classes. Popular cultural traditions from folk to music hall would be pressed into service to tell the stories of ordinary people. Now, as part of the company's 50th anniversary celebrations, playwright Bean pays creative homage to those humble origins. "How it all started; the madness; the privations; the rat under the stairs; the buried dog in the yard with its legs still sticking up; the horse; the phone box outside." Nowadays, Hull Truck Theatre occupies a prestigious city centre location in its own, purpose-built building. The company's international reputation is a source of deep pride to local inhabitants. So much so, that when Hull was awarded UK City Of Culture status in 2017 it provoked a new stadium chant -- "You're only here for t'culture!" -- amongst Hull City football fans. The house, in Coltman Street, has been garnished with a Blue Plaque -- much to the surprise of the present owners, who had no idea of the history of the building. That Hull Truck survived beyond the first flush of youthful idealism is down to the vision and tenacity of its founder Mark Bradwell. But the global recognition factor -- the brand -- owes more to John Godber, the man who came after him. It was Godber, one of Britain's most performed playwrights, who penned Bouncers, Teechers, Up N Under and April In Paris -- plays which attract devoted working class audiences. Godber, and his favoured troop of actors, parted uneasily with the troupe's Board when they moved from the notorious black shed that was Hull Truck's performance home for many creative years, to the present, state-of-the-art building. He now runs his own touring company with his wife Jane Thornton, based at Theatre Royal, Wakefield. Godber's work is politely rather than enthusiastically represented amongst the 50th Anniversary celebrations and one senses a certain amount of walking on eggshells. Ah well. Hull Truck, which has supported an entire eco-system of writers over its decades-long history, deserves its year of celebration. And as theatre people should know well, there is a Banquo's Ghost at every feast. Someone should write a play about it. Hull Truck's 71 Coltman Street runs until Mar 12 (£10-£28.50) with the On Demand version available online Mar 2-19 (suggested price £15)
What's On This Week (Feb 25-Mar 3)
So here I am — a day late and a dollar short. But still, despite a demanding day job, showing up at the page and determined to push a newsletter out whenever I have sufficient time. It will get easier.
Some of the best treats around this weekend are musical. You’ve missed Alcina (sorry) but you can catch Opera North’s staging of Handel’s opera for free on the OperaVision website until Aug 17. Baroque specialist Laurence Cummings directs this Tempest-like tale of an island enchantress with soprano Máire Flavin in the title role.
Meanwhile, if you can’t wait for Opera North’s Carmen to return to the county (Hull New Theatre, Mar 31, Apr 2, £15-£45) there’s Ellen Kent’s spectacular version at the Grand Opera House in York. I don’t care how much the purists sneer — I am an Ellen Kent fangirl. Her ingenuity is endless as she defies opera-economics gravity to bring full-scale productions to mainstream audiences without obvious government subsidy. Feb 26, £21-£46.
A neglected masterpiece of silent film, The Wind starring a radiant Lillian Gish, has been set to a new soundtrack by Scottish composer and artist Erland Cooper which features 18 female voices drawn from the ranks of the Chorus of Opera North. You can watch it at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, Feb 26, £18.
And on Sunday afternoon, soprano Katherine Broderick and pianist Kathryn Stott are to be found at Slung Low, in Holbeck, Leeds, performing Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise. This is mighty unusual because Winterreise was written for the male voice. Feb 26, pay what you can
And now, with apologies to Mike Bradley, for two examples of the sort of theatre he set himself against when he founded Hull Truck:
The first is Noel Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Christopher Luscombe and starring Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge as an ageing Elyot and Amanda. This is the one in which a pair of divorcees find themselves standing on adjoining balconies in the South of France whilst celebrating their respective re-marriages to other people. Coward’s depiction of the messiness of love is timeless and theatrical productions don’t get any starrier than this. To Feb 26, £15-£45.50.
The second is even more egregious — Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced, adapted by Leslie Darbon, at CAST, Doncaster. A lavish production, a cast that’s instantly recognisable from telly — get back into that theatre, folks, your country needs you. And the pre-War stylings are gorgeous. Mar 1-5, £22-£24
Running concurrently at CAST, as if in atonement, is Yes! Yes! UCS! a musical play inspired by a memorable labour dispute. Based on verbatim interviews with Scottish shipyard workers, the Townsend Theatre production tells of two women who fought in the early 1970s to protect their industry from closure and their skills, traditions and community from destruction. For a while, they succeeded. But the world was in the grip of a new force called globalisation, so — good luck with that. Mar 1 & 2, £10 & £15
And, in a neat illustration of how the preoccupations of the Left have evolved over the subsequent 50 years, divorcing it from the sympathies of its former working class base, this week we have Pilot Theatre’s big reveal —The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Esther Richardson directs S. Shakthidharan’s adaptation of Zana Fraillon’s novel about a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life in an Australian permanent detention centre. The education pack that accompanies it is formidable — and full of the sort of thing that has right-of-centre parents muttering about ‘activist teachers’. Kids must get their human rights information from somewhere, though. To Mar 5, £15-£27
And finally, here are a couple kids’ shows to take their minds off the upsetting things that are streaming into their lives right now via the internet and television.
Meal One in the Studio at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre is an adaptation of a bizarre children’s book authored by the cult Scottish writer and performer Ivor Cutler and illustrator Helen Oxenbury. Part installation, part live performance, it tells the story of 10-year-old Helbert who plants a plum stone in his bedroom floor — with startling consequences. A co-production by Bradford-based 509 Arts and Hull Truck Theatre, Meal One is supported by England's leading learning disability performance and live arts company Mind the Gap and funded by Arts Council England. Feb 26, £10
And the charmingly named Grow Up Grandad is an amateur production by Middlesbrough Little Theatre. Local author Gordon Steel has created a poignant yet humorous play about the inter-generational struggle between a grandad and his granddaughter for whom he is expected to provide care. It’s a play about hope and despair, love and loss as the old man does his best against impossible odds.
When one remembers that Gordon Steel, too, is a member of the Hull Truck writing stable, it is evident how far and wide the creative influence of a really good producing theatre can stretch. Mar 2-5, £11 & £12
Part of Transform Festival 21-22, Quartiers Libres (meaning ‘free reign’) was created by Ivorian choreographer Nadia Beugré (pictured above). It is a Libr'Arts/Virginie Dupray production with support from Choreographic National Center, Agora-Montpellier Danse, and Choreographic Development Center. Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds, Mar 18 & 19, pay what you can