Review: When The Boat Comes In, Customs House, South Shields

Jamie Brown excels in the role of Jack, made famous by James Bolam in the TV version of When The Boat Comes In.
Jamie Brown excels in the role of Jack, made famous by James Bolam in the TV version of When The Boat Comes In.

An old favourite has docked at the Customs House, although you would have to be in your 40s to have any meaningful memories of the late James Mitchell’s long-running TV drama.

The flat cap saga of Jack Ford and the folk of Gallowshield, inspired by South Shields where the writer was born, started on BBC1 in 1976.

Alice Stokoe and Jamie Brown make an appealing couple as Jessie and Jack in When The Boat Comes In.

Alice Stokoe and Jamie Brown make an appealing couple as Jessie and Jack in When The Boat Comes In.

Once out of the traps, it was off and running. There were further series in 1977 and 1978, and then a fourth in 1981 before time was called after 51 episodes.

Sometimes 15 million people tuned in, drawn by the catchy theme tune of Dance Ti’ Thy Daddy and gripped by a compelling tale set in the tough North East after the First World War.

This first stage version – a world premiere, no less - has been a labour of love for writer Peter Mitchell, James’s son, who was also born in South Shields.

Presented to mark the centenary of the First World War, it opens with an attack on the Western Front: “Gas, gas, gas! Boom!”

Striking miner Bill (Steve Byron) is laying down the law, while wife Bella (Janine Birkett) strives to keep the hot meals coming.

Striking miner Bill (Steve Byron) is laying down the law, while wife Bella (Janine Birkett) strives to keep the hot meals coming.

Then suddenly, aided by Alison Ashton’s versatile set, we’re in peacetime Gallowshield where political upheaval and industrial strife have replaced wartime concerns.

In the Smeaton household, striking miner Bill (Steve Byron) is laying down the law, while wife Bella (Janine Birkett) strives to keep the hot meals coming.

They have three grown-up children – Billie, Tom and Jessie (you need to concentrate in the opening scenes) – and soon they are joined by charismatic Jack Ford, still in his sergeant’s uniform.

A bit odd, you might think. But it serves him well, enforcing his natural air of authority and enabling him to yank a traumatized Somme survivor momentarily back to his senses.

Jack, the great survivor, was a peachy role for James Bolam on TV. Here he’s played by Jamie Brown, who seems to have become North East theatre’s archetypal Tommy Atkins in recent years.

That said, this is an example of the production’s excellent casting. Jack – charming, roguish, mysteriously never short of cash – has an eye for Jessie Smeaton, a teacher with a clear sense of what’s right and just.

They make an appealing couple in the form of Brown and Alice Stokoe, the Jarrow actress whose past engagements include Mamma Mia! In the West End.

But there’s to be no smooth progress to the altar. When impatient Jack gets a young widow called Dolly in the family way, his code of honour dictates that he must marry the girl.

And then, at what seems like a beginning, it ends! Just as you’ve really come to care about the characters.

Peter Mitchell and director Katy Weir pack a lot into quite a short play (easily less than two hours, including interval) and the best that can be said is that it leaves you wanting more.

As with that TV series, there is scope for sequels. Peter Mitchell, who has also written a new novel about Jack Ford, has proved there’s life yet in his father’s creation and there’s certainly no shortage of material.

:: When the Boat Comes In is at the Customs House, South Shields, until Saturday, August 25

David Whetstone