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As a playwright Nick Darke, who died in 2005, was known for his work at the extremes of British theatrical life: the major national companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and small quirky or innovative companies such as the Victoria in Stoke and Kneehigh in his native Cornwall. Landmarks comes closer to the second group, researched on the farms of Cheshire and staged at the Gateway, Chester, in 1979.
It’s difficult to find any performance history after that and, though a clever, humane and funny piece, it is perhaps too unassuming to appeal to, for instance, major regional theatres: even its length, 80 minutes of stage time in two short acts, is modest. It is, however, ideally suited to small-scale touring, especially in a production so thoroughly attuned to Darke’s paradoxical blend of the whimsical and the practical, of myth and the work-place – Richard Avery’s empathy with the piece no doubt derives from his having been in the cast directed by Darke in 1979.
The three nights in the East Riding Theatre come in the middle of some 20 one-nighters, mostly in East and North Yorkshire village halls, and this is not one of those productions where we wonder at the expertise of the home company in producing visual effects on a small wing-less stage. Other Lives Productions, despite strong links with ERT, are an on-the-road company and travel light: the only set design credit is to Ed Ullyart for “building the stocks” – and they are essential to the plot.
Not that there is much plot. Wilf and his brother-in-law Totty are small farmers: Wilf is devoted to the old ways and ploughs with horses (this is the 1930s), Totty is more go-ahead and has bought a Fordson tractor. Darke has an ear perfectly attuned to affectionate squabbling, whether between Wilf and Totty or between Wilf and his teenage daughter Alice, but there is a particular reason behind Wilf’s arguing with Totty: his brother-in-law has sold him a cow which set about dying as soon as the deal was done.
Darke gets much humour from the balance between folk superstition and down-to-earth scepticism – the characters have their moments of shrewdness, but credulity runs deep, especially when a stranger appears and they find all kinds of reasons for deciding he is a Boggart – a malevolent spirit. Act 2, three years after Act 1, shows the effects of this belief, but even so, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of horses and tractors loom large in Wilf and Totty’s conversation.
Neil King’s craggily traditional Wilf misses none of the drollery of the script and chimes perfectly with Gordon Meredith’s more fanciful Totty, given to extravagant narratives of the glory of industry. As Alice Roxanne Waite’s stroppy teenager in Act 1 is a delight; the soberer Alice of Act 2 is more grown up, less funny, but convincingly sincere. Neighbour Mrs. Mayse, always returning from China or setting off up the Nile with her cats, is the funnier for Jane Hollington’s down-to-earth delivery. Richard Avery’s stranger is amiably neutral – we can make up our own minds.
The publicity – “engaging and gently comic” – gets it right, about the production as well as the play. After Beverley there are still ten one-nighters and villagers in the likes of Brandesburton and Potto should be thinking of making their way to the village hall.
HULL IS THIS
As I think I may have mentioned once or twice before in my reviews, I’m a local lass. As such I’m familiar with the maritime legacy of Hull and the East Coast, of trawlers and headscarf revolutionaries but less so with the lives of fishermen on the South West coastline. The life of a small boat fisherman is – pun intended – a very different kettle of fish. It is against this landscape that Nick Darke’s 1981 work, The Catch, plays out. This restaging from Other Lives Productions couldn’t be more timely.
The play follows two fishermen struggling with EU regulations and dwindling fish stock in the ocean only to turn to nefarious measures in order to supplement their income. Throw into the mix a shady offstage figure running many dodgy deals and a pregnant daughter in the house and you’ve got the makings of a brilliant comic play.
The Catch does have moments of that promised brilliance. The second act in particular balances wit and farce perfectly, where all of the elements crescendo into some fantastic onstage moments. The character dynamics are perfectly played. Between some impressive accent work from the cast and some wonderful worldbuilding in Darke’s writing, the play is so entirely immersive. I found it a surprise walking out into Beverley in 2021, having been so emerged in 1980s Padstow. Something which must be partly credited to Ed Ullyart, whose set design here is exemplary.
While I was invested enough in the lives of Swiddles, Leadwell and Thelma to stick with them, there are a few instances where the play’s action seems to lag, or the heavy dialect becomes muddy. I also think there were some lines that would have benefitted from an update for modern audiences. All in all, though, there is a reason that this play is still being performed forty years after its debut; it’s an entertaining piece of theatre.
Richard Avery’s direction makes good use of the space and conveys the story well. There’s a simplicity to the staging that lends itself to strong characters which The Catch certainly provides. Avery gives his cast the room to shine in their roles.
This is a task met well by all three players. Neil King as Swiddles is undoubtedly the stand-out performance of the three. Even when I found it difficult to follow the dialect, I always understood what King meant through his expressions. He provides the show’s emotional heart with ease and the pathos he brings to the aging fisherman is truly essential to the play’s success. Similarly, Gordon Meredith as Leadwell and Evie Gutteridge as Thelma provide excellent moral and emotional foils, respectively to King’s proud and reserved Swiddles.
The Catch is definitely worth seeing. It is unpretentious in its approach to character and form, letting the strength of its script and its actors shine through. There’s an earnestness to the play that is utterly disarming. It reads as an ode to a community dying out, even in its most comic moments. Many of its performances at ERT have already sold out, something well deserved, but if you don’t manage to catch it here, Other Lives is taking the production to Withernsea, Bridlington and York in the next couple of weeks, so there are plenty of chances to get a ticket.
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Other Lives Productions, based in Beverley, was founded and is run by Richard Avery and Neil King. For such a small company, touring mostly to village halls, the choice of play is often ambitious, even quirky. Currently Other Lives are reviving the work of Nick Darke whom Avery worked with in the theatre and whose work has fallen into some neglect since his death in 2005. In 2019 the company produced Landmarks to great success; now it’s the turn of The Catch, originally staged at The Royal Court Upstairs in 1981.
Two weeks into a four weeks-plus tour, mostly of East and North Yorkshire, the production settles for a week at Beverley’s East Riding Theatre. The play, teasingly poised between sit-com and serious social issues, is typical of Darke’s combination of practical man of the theatre, here working with small cast and small space, and environmental campaigner.
The play, set in Cornwall at the time of its writing, deals with the decline of the fishing industry, in part because of the imposition of Common Market fishing quotas. Then, as now, membership of the European community was a thorny issue with fishermen who lost out both coming and going.
That social issue underlies the whole play, but cloaked in a comic, sometimes farcical story-line. At the opening of the play Swiddles and his crewman, Leadwell, argue over the current situation, Swiddles angrily uncomprehending, Leadwell suggesting they should move with the times. Thelma, Swiddles’ daughter, pregnant and refusing to name the father, complicates the issue, as does the unseen fourth character in the play, the local wide-boy, the object of Swiddles’ detestation, but rather more complex emotions from the other two. As the first act ends, Leadwell has just persuaded Swiddles of the desirability of using their lobster-pots as the final link in a consignment of cocaine’s journey from South America. Of course there is – what else? – a catch in his scheme.
The tone of The Catch is difficult to define. The world of the sit-com is there in father and daughter, both with guilty secrets and expecting calls, rushing to get to the phone first, and in some smart gags: “Go with him to Wiltshire and he’ll desert you. Then where will you be?” “Wiltshire.” On the other hand the dialogue has an earthiness suggestive of more realistic drama and Swiddles’ long speech despairing at the loss of the old life to fishing quotas and tourist attractions expresses real social concerns.
Richard Avery’s economical production captures this tone, with Neil King (Swiddles) and Gordon Meredith (Leadwell), as the embattled fishermen, developing a neat double act, then fragmenting to the brink of violence as deception takes hold. Evie Guttridge’s forthright Thelma completes a thoroughly convincing ensemble.
Ed Ullyart’s cottage interior set looks the part, draped with fishing nets and suchlike, and the music is wittily chosen: for instance, the play is introduced by Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea, then, as the fishermen come to an accommodation with the world outside, Charles Trenet’s original La Mer greets the interval triumphantly.