Crude Apache Theatre are one of the features of Norwich life that make it such a joy to live here. They have been performing locally since 1993 and consistently bring out new and compelling theatrical works always performed to a high standard. Their love of Norwich and Norfolk comes across in many of their works which often give a new insight into details of the local social and physical history that has made this area what it is now.
At The Turning Of The Tide, written and produced by Panda Monium, Jo Edye and Tim Lane, is another enjoyable work that focuses on an extinct but once vital group of people, the trading wherrymen who carried heavy goods all around this area before the railways came. As with the canal system elsewhere in the country the navigable waterways of the Norfolk Broads were vital as a transport link for many generations and they forged families with great sailing skills and local knowledge to move these giant boats around efficiently.
This well researched play looks at the lives of one wherry family just as the railways were about to be laid in the mid Nineteenth Century. The patrician skipper Toby Stannard (Russell J Turner) is assisted by his family crew of his wife Jenny (Jo Davies), clever but distracted son Albert (Theo Keller) and gloriously strong willed daughter Victoria (Gillian Dean) who would love nothing more than taking over her father’s skipper role.
The show starts and finishes with a song, and the lively musical interludes help to tell the story throughout. The Punch House Band who give the musical backdrop to this show are all Crude Apache stalwarts who help to keep the pace of the show just right.
Being a wherry skipper was perceived then as now as a man’s job – even though some of the most capable handlers of today’s small fleet of pleasure wherries are female. It is not a job for the faint hearted – given their huge sails a sudden bit of a breeze as you come out from the shelter of some trees can set these behemoths skating across the water. Should you ever see the chance to sail on one, take it – it is a unique and thrilling experience. In this context we can understand now why the skippers daughter Vicky is so angry when told that she could never be a skipper herself, and she turns her anger on her brother as siblings do. The struggles of the Stannard family are played out against the diminishing returns of the waterways life as rail competition starts to render them obsolete, and the pressures of lower incomes drive ever higher risks with cargo loads and tight timescales to deliver, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Hard times give rise to strong temptation to take a quick profit when you can, even if this means trying to escape the sharp eyes of the revenue men with a bit of smuggled brandy and gin. The many quiet nooks and crannies of the Broads system give plenty of opportunities to hide a vessel for a few days, even one as big as a Norfolk wherry.
Jo Davies and Russell J Turner always give strong performances and are both very impressive as the married couple who are seeing the end of their age-old way of life. Gillian Dean is great fun as the wayward daughter Victoria, who wants to live her life on the wherry Perseverance just as her parents have. They bring to life the real challenges that face anyone who sails on the Broads system where a sudden storm on a tricky reach such as Breydon Water can quickly turn into a matter of life or death.
Along the river we meet many of the other characters who made up these communities – the pub landladies, freight auctioneers, good old boys and young fools as well as the rich rail entrepreneurs and their lackeys who bring the disruption of capitalist change to this complex community. All are brought to life in a way that allows us to concentrate on the story of a lifestyle that will never be the same again. Director Panda Monium has ensured that the large cast are all focused on the unfolding story throughout the show.
This play gives a remarkable insight into the lives of the families that lived and worked on the wherries and is great fun to watch. I saw the play in the beautiful setting of Cow Tower by the River Wensum in Norwich, where in days past we might have seen the wherries heading up to the navigation limit of New Mills Yard bringing goods to and from the heart of the city. The producers hope to refine the play to be performed indoors in venues such as Dragon Hall in King Street that are steeped in the history of our rivers but in this spell of warm weather there is no finer delight in this fine city than watching this drama played out in the open air with the backdrop of the river that was so much a part of these families lives.
© Julian Swainson 2018