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A CurtainUp London Review
The Good Hope
By Lizzie Loveridge
These aren't just tales sweetheart. These are people's lives. It isn't some big adventure story. Those boys out there are separated from eternity by a plank the thickness of your thumb. --- Kitty
The Good Hope is a play with a message. Unscrupulous boat owners had been known to put profits before safety and turn a blind eye to the unseaworthiness of a vessel. As we watch Lee Hall's transposition of Herman Heijerman's Dutch 1900 play about the abuses of capitalism to Whitby in Yorkshire, we may think that avoidable accidents are a thing of the past. That is, until we remember the recent rail disasters where profits seemed to take priority over railway track maintenance.
What is special about this atmospheric production is director Bill Bryden's skill at recreating a lost England, a place separated from us by only a hundred years, but light years away in terms of technology and innovation. Here on the cobbled Whitby waterfront outside the pub, "The Compass" we see the inhabitants of this small fishing village on the Yorkshire coast. People living in poverty with the option of going to sea as the only alternative to starvation. But for all that, a community where people support each other and pull together.
Kitty Fitzgerald (Frances de la Tour) is a fisherman's widow. She has lost her husband and two sons at sea. She was once the servant in the house of, and lover of Christopher Makepeace (Tom Georgeson), the ship owner of "The Good Hope>". Her miltant, eldest son James (SteveNicholson) has been in prison for political agitation and her youngest son, Ben (Iain Robertson) stammers and is a weakling. Kitty is determined that the reluctant Ben should go to sea like his father and brothers before him. Ben is told that "The Good Hope" is not seaworthy by Simon the shipwright (John Tams) and attempts to "jump ship" even before he has embarked. Clementine (Charlotte Emmerson) is Makepeace's middle class and spoiled daughter who is photographing the fishing community. In the second act a terrible storm tears through the town and after weeks of waiting the news comes that a sailor's body from "The Good Hope" has been washed up off the coast of Scotland. The fishing vessel went down with a dozen men and boys from seven families leaving sixteen children with no wage earner in the family and at least two unmarried girls pregnant and shamed. Makepeace attempts a cover up, is confronted by his daughter but buys her silence.
Frances de la Tour as Kitty personifies tragedy from the first though. I was unconvinced that a woman having lost three men in her family would be so anxious to send her last son to sea. It may have been economic survival that motivates her but she spends Ben's advance wages on a send off for him. Pride and social position seem quite high on her list of priorities.
Tom Georgeson, has the able touch of a smiling villain. It is hard to single out performances in this ensemble production almost all of which are totally convincing. The group of women who gather when their men are away to be admonished by Kitty that"seamen's wives don't cry", contribute to this wonderful historical picture of life a century ago which alone, is reason to see The Good Hope. There is a one man band leading a blind man and a clog dance celebration which is Fred Astaire show stopping. Music making and singing, plain song and folk music, play an important part in this community. The funeral scene features something new to me, women pall bearers.
Bill Bryden's last production at the National was the magical mystery plays based on the Bible The Mysteriesand this production too has his special touch of creating a vibrant and believable community. Lee Hall's dialogue is lively, full of the vernacular, feisty, bawdy and graphic. If I have a criticism, besides my doubts about Kitty's maternal instinct, it is that the political message is too black and white, that the shipowner is too obviously guilty whereas I believe most situations would have a larger component of grey ambiguity.
The sets and sounds and music of a lost age are recreated in the National's smallest space the Cottesloe with panache. Artistically there are old sepia photographs of Whitby in the programme which have inspired Hayden Griffin's design, fishermen mending their nets and women in bonnets balling yarn. Of course the photographs tend to romanticise what was a barely metered out existence, as one of the characters says in The Good Hope "It is not death which is the problem but life which we should be worried about."
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