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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Under the Whaleback
by Lizzie Loveridge

Fish and fucking chips! That's what my dad died for. The fish half of a fish and chip supper.
-- Darrel
Richard Bean jointly won the 2002 George Devine award for Most Promising Playwright for Under the Whaleback, his new play about two generations of a fishing community in Kingston upon Hull. The "under the whaleback" of the title is the crew's living and sleeping quarters in the bow of the trawler. For much of the sea passage when not on duty, the men are confined to their cramped quarters, to pass the time as and how they can. It is through their conversation that Richard Bean takes his audience inside the concerns of the fishing community in a play full of wit and rich anecdote.

Under the Whaleback spans thirty seven years from 1965 to the present day. It opens with Cassidy (Alan Williams) showing 17 year old Darrel (Iain McKee) the ropes before a voyage in The Kingston Jet that turns out to be Cassidy's last. Cassidy is a larger than life character, a figure of folklore for the extremes of his behaviour, known locally as "the one-man circus". Darrel is his illegitimate son but Darrel does not know that. Forward to 1972, Darrel, now 24, is a fisherman on the James Joyce with old hand Billy (Sam Kelly), the strong, silent Roc (Richard Stacey) and Norman (Matthew Dunster). Norman is nervous and highly excitable, angry and tense. As the James Joyce sails into the storm, tensions rise within the cabin and almost all the men are lost from the raft as the ship goes down. In the third scene, in 2002, the Arctic Kestrel, a former fishing vessel has become a museum with Darrel, now 54 (Alan Williams), working as the curator. He is visited by Roc's delinquent son Pat (Matthew Dunster) who has come to avenge his father who drowned in the final voyage of the James Joyce. But he will make another discovery.

Richard Bean has written a play rich in nautical history of a sea faring community. I admire his research. The first two acts convey the dangers, as Cassidy says, "You've got to understand one thing son. Me father died at sea and his father died at sea and his father afore him. Fishing, distant water." My own great grandfather was a sailor, he was buried in Greenland. He worked on a Scottish whaler. His son was a merchant seaman too who traded in the South China Seas. So I can relate to these characters who tell me that fishing is in their blood. I liked this aspect of the play very much. I sympathise with the lack of attraction of land based employment in the area. As Cassidy says, how can you be proud of making caravans?

After the interval the play switches to look at what becomes of the sea faring community as opportunities in the fishing industry lessen. Darrel has become a museum piece and Pat is a disturbed young man who smuggles cigarettes for a living. Linking them is that both men have been brought up apart from their natural fathers. There is a single act of violence which in the proximity of the tiny Jerwood Upstairs space, I found very shocking. It made me feel sea sick and hindered my ability to concentrate on other aspects of the final scene.

Richard Wilson has directed the storm scenes effectively, the actors having to lurch over in the manner of the Star Trek cast as the ship lists. Julian McGowan's trawler, with its curtained bunks, essentially the same set for all three trawlers but with some changes, is detailed and authentic and with the sound effects, creates a believable sea voyage.

All the performances are excellent. Outstanding is Alan Williams, contrasting as both the old roué, maverick Cassidy with his wealth of stories and as the older Darrel, intelligent and reflective.

A small niggle. Bean uses the inherited red-green colour vision deficiency to tie the relationship between father and son and to explain why the bookish Darrel has not qualified as a captain. The genetic "colour blindness" is passed through the female line, not from father to son, but from mother to son.

Under the Whaleback confirms Richard Bean's talent for writing of depth and character driven comedy with a black edge.
Under the Whaleback
Written by Richard Bean
Directed by Richard Wilson

With: Matthew Dunster, Sam Kelly, Iain McKee, Ian Mercer, Richard Stacey, Alan Williams, Sophie Bleasdale.
Designer: Julian McGowan
Lighting Designer: Johanna Town
Sound: Gareth Fry
Running time: Two hours with one interval.
Box Office: 0207 565 5000
Booking to 3rd May 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th April 2003 Performance at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube Station: Sloane Square)

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