Tough times relived in an enjoyable show - review of When the Boat Comes in: Part 2 The Hungry Years at The Customs House, South Shields

There can be few venues anywhere in the UK that so actively and proudly support and promote local talent and are willing to take risks even when – especially when – funding continues to be cut and budgets tightened.

Monday, 16th September 2019, 4:41 pm
Updated Tuesday, 17th September 2019, 10:12 am
When the Boat Comes In - Part 2 at The Customs House

For 25 years The Customs House has been a beacon for local actors, directors and writers.

The second instalment of When the Boat Comes In is a perfect example of what it has been doing so well since 1994: a local writer (Peter Mitchell was born in South Shields), telling a story about local people through local actors and a local director.

And I’m pleased to say it works a treat. Set a few months after we saw chancer Jack Ford’s betrayal of teacher Jessie Seaton (Alice Stokoe), both characters appear to have moved on. Jack (the excellent Jamie Brown) has married the pregnant Dolly (Anna Bolton) while Jessie is about to marry a new sweetheart.

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When the Boat Comes In - Part 2 at The Customs House

Times are tough, though, and Jack is struggling to provide for his wife and child-to-be. Evidence of just how hard things are, is given by Jack and Dolly’s widowed neighbour Carrie Downey (Sarah Balfour) who is drowning in debt and can’t afford to feed her two children.

Local toff Horatio Manners (Steve Byron) offers Jack an (almost) legitimate opportunity to make some ready money and in the ruse that follows, Jack meets the lecherous Lady Jessica Croner (also Alice Stoker, who slips effortlessly from upright teacher to sleazy drunk).

Meanwhile, the Seaton household is grieving the death of Mary and coming to terms with bringing up her baby. Jessie’s brother Tom Seaton (Matthew Howden) starts thieving to make ends meet, while his parents Bill (Steve Bryon equally convincing as with his Horatio role) and Bella (the wonderful Janine Birkett) argue over whether the baby can stay in their household.

After making some money by duping Lord Calderbeck (Charlie Richmond) Jack sees an opportunity to make yet more by beating rival Les Mallow (Adam Donaldson) in the fight to lead the local shipyard workers’ union.

The pace is hectic and the show is expertly directed by Katy Weir. Scene changes are cleverly done, occasionally masked by crooner Luke Maddison belting out hits from the 1930s.

The staging is imaginative and effective, although it has to be said the sound wasn’t great and when the dialogue is so rapidly delivered, this is important and needs sorting.

The performances, however, are generally excellent. Leading from the front is Jamie Brown, whose central performance the show is built around. He has to be good, and he is - compelling, confident and word perfect.

There are some equally impressive supporting performances, particularly from Steve Byron, Janine Birkett, Alice Stokoe and Charlie Richmond, who also plays Jack’s best mate Matt.

There are two particularly electric scenes. The first is set in the Seaton family home when Bill and Bella are arguing over the future of Tom and Mary’s baby; the second a brilliant, short, three-hander when Jessie pleads with Jack to help Tom, watched over by the suspicious Dolly.

There are also some great lines, none better than the description of saintly Bella: “She couldn’t give kindess up for Lent.”

On occasion it feels a little too much like an episode of a TV show, and the ending – leaving the door well and truly open for the boat to come in again – adds to this.

But make no mistake though, this is a thoroughly enjoyable show and one that sits proudly along the likes of Tom and Catherine, The Dolly Mixtures and so many others in giving local audiences quality dramas and stories about their own communities, often from people within those communities.

It’s what The Customs House does best, and what it has been doing for a very long time.

:: When the Boat Comes in: Part 2 The Hungry Years runs at The Customs House until September 28