Russell J Turner and Alison Musgrove on the wherry – photo from Crude Apache
Crude Apache are a theatre company that has evolved over some decades to earn a high reputation for their work. Mostly they are to be found in some muddy park or plashy fen, where their supremacy in producing engaging theatre in an outdoor setting is unrivalled. They do come indoors too, often when it is seasonally challenging to perform outdoors. I particularly remember their Richard the Third in the old Shoe Factory on a night as chillingly bleak as the Shakespeare text.
This week they are gracing the fusty delight that is the Maddermarket Theatre with a new version of a Crude Apache hit from a couple of years back – At The Turning Of The Tide – an engaging insight into the life of the families who gave Norfolk its unique transport infrastructure of trading wherries before the railways came and swept them into history.
The original show was engaging and enjoyable, and this version has kept all of the strengths of the original but adds a new darker twist to the story. It is a musical, with rather good songs from Tim Lane and the Punch House Band, who occasionally get highlighted behind a gauze screen at the back of the stage. Tim rightly enjoys a lot of the credit for making this such a good show.
We follow the fortunes of the Stannard family of wherrymen, although that loose term clearly encompasses the strong women in this show. They trade the Norfolk rivers and broads on their wherry ‘Perseverance’ in an age old tradition now under threat from advancing new technology in the form of railways. Toby Stannard (Russell J Turner) is the skipper of Perseverance, the wherry inherited by his wife Jenny (Jo Davies). Their daughter Victoria (Emma Ewins) is a natural navigator who loves the wherry work, while their son Albert (Jeremiah Humphreys-Piercy) would rather sit and read a decent bit of poetry.
We are reminded sharply of the distinctive gender roles expected in these times, and also given a tale of what happens when people do not conform to these expectations. There also emerges some unpleasant history at a personal level as it becomes clear that landlady Maggie Potter (Joanna Swan), who also allocates wherry loads, still yearns for Toby who long ago dumped her for Jenny. The scene is set for some tricky waters ahead.
There are several intriguing sub plots, including the friendship between young Albert and the new railway mogul Charles Montague (Leighton Melville). Writer and Director Jo Edye working with Panda Monium together have crafted a fine drama, which deserves a life with many future productions. It is an engaging and heartwarming story with a huge amount of local history slipped in thoughtfully.
It is not perfect – the transition from an outdoor show to the sharper focus of a confined space means that an audience is keener and less distracted, and the pace of the show needs tightening up to reflect the setting. There is some hesitancy from the cast, particularly at the start of the show, but they should assure themselves that they are all capable performers and throw their confidence at us from the start. In an enclosed auditorium there is a collective agreement on the suspension of disbelief, so it is more important to stay in character and resist the asides to the audience that make for good fun in a park but could suggest a lack of discipline on a stage.
Jo Edye has assembled a very capable cast for this work. Stalwarts Russell Turner and Jo Davies will never disappoint, but the younger generation are well portrayed by Emma Ewins and Jeremiah Humphreys-Piercy. Jo Swan is a convincing villain who we cannot just dismiss as a monochrome baddie, as her story unfolds as the play progresses. Every character on stage is developed and credible, and some of the more minor roles have many of the best lines. Leighton Melville creates a carefully nuanced character, Charles Montague, who is both the railway mogul bringing change to a whole way of life but also an observant man who lifts young Albert into a brighter future. Gillian Dean switches from her role as Victoria in the outdoor show to various parts including Emerson, a Broads photographer. Ian Alldis has a great stage presence as the brooding Lachlan McLeod, who serves Maggie Potter until he finally loses patience with her increasingly bitter pursuit of Jenny. Every member of this cast creates believable, engaging characters, including those with the non-speaking (but still singing) roles who do so much to build a lively picture of life on the Norfolk quaysides nearly two centuries back.
The Maddermarket Theatre is a Norwich treasure and this cast have created a show that fits it very well. On the night I attended the seats were all full, and I recognised many in the audience who have played their part in making Norwich and the Broads that special part of the world that we cherish so much. This a play brought to you by people who know the white-knuckle thrill of being on a big sailed wherry when it catches the breeze and slices up the river with silent speed. We are taken back to a time when this was the stuff of life for some very skilled Norfolk families as they struggled with the pressures that would end their way of life completely. It is as good as being on those vessels, but if you never have, make sure you seek out the chance to sail on a Norfolk wherry. There is nothing quite like it.
On coming indoors, this show has a bit more passion and peril than the original, which is good. My overwhelming feeling is that this would make a rather fine film script, so if any Hollywood producers are looking out for something good (and not awaiting trial) this might just be the one to focus on. Meanwhile get yourselves a Maddermarket ticket before they all disappear as swiftly as a wherry on Breydon Water with the tide on her side.
© Julian Swainson 2020
Read our review of the outdoor show here: http://norwicheye.co.uk/whats-on/norwich-eye-reviews-at-the-turning-of-the-tide/
Listing – see details on poster below: