Touring – reviewed at Bethel Theatre, Lowestoft
There is no Grit fishing-village now on the Lowestoft shore, but in 1900 there were homes, shops, bakeries, laundries and Happy Wellum the Chimney-sweep with his donkey and cart. You didn’t, says old Ruby contentedly: “need to go up town for nothin’.” Townspeople would look down on the fisherfolk if you did, anyway. But on the Grit all 13 pubs had a piano because 17 had been salvaged from a shipwreck, in good order in their crates and “bootiful” condition.
Stories like this are studded through this glorious 65-minute piece by the poet Dean Parkin, with music by Maurice Horhut and from tradition. Parkin himself sits almost apologetically at the back of the stage behind his books, while in the foreground three actors with his words and verbatim memories, re-create a world. David Redgrave and Sally-Ann Burnett are in chairs reminiscing as Ned, born Jubilee year, one of 13, and Ruby who lost a father at sea. Tim Fitzhigham is the third, sometimes a rousing MC but more often the decent, troubled ghost of a skipper who used to send that little daughter postcards every time they reached one of the ports on the wild, cold dangerous North Sea.
Sometimes Parkin calls up voices recorded in his long painstaking study of Lowestoft past, and we hear the late Jack Rose with another drily salty tale or observation. The men and their nicknames rise up before you: Tar, Strawberry (for his red nose), Puffin, and one known as Posh because of his friendship (maybe more) with Edward Fitzgerald, who wrote the Rubaiyat and at one point bought Posh a herring-boat.
We are told of the vicar on the lifeboat crew tearing to a call, supposedly shouting the end of the sermon as he ran; of the Scottish herring-lassies descending in thousands, sonsy and singing and tough as whipcord; of the hooks on every cottage window frame for the net-mending. We are reminded of the many floods, the 1897 one so severe that a Grit donkey was taken up cottage stairs for its own safety, and the 1916 unexploded bomb. Happy dragged it into his garden and demanded tuppence-a-look from passers-by.
It was a homeland, a belonging-place of strong flavour, and for a while, never forget it, a source of huge wealth and success. In 1913 there were through the port 770 vessels – more than half Grit men – landing ten million herrings. Exports to Russia and Germany boomed. The 1920’s saw poverty and decline, but the fishing industry carried on; daughters ending up working at Birds Eye, the town growing. Then dying away. “I don’t weep for it” says Ned, from the past. “It served its turn. But they coulda kept some of it. It’s like they want to forget us”.
Shows as powerful, thoughtful and elegantly assembled as this should travel beyond the small compass of towns whose very old people remember them. As one remarks in Dean’s spare, powerful words, Dunwich gets made much of because of its history, but that was centuries past. The Grit is recent history, its mark still on families around.
Two more performances in Lowestoft, as I write. But it should tour , as the herring-girls’ play by Ann Coburn did – see https://theatrecat.com/tag/get-up-and-tie-your-fingers/ .