Richard Brook as Meredith Blower and Caitlin Woolrich as Esme – photo © Julian Swainson

No Norwich summer is complete without some great theatre in our parks and gardens, and the Crude Apache company have been providing it for longer than I can remember.

Their new offering is called We Will Stand, and gives us a dramatised account of the Yarmouth and Lowestoft Herring Girls’ strike of 1936. With only a little documented history writer and director Panda Monium has been free to use some dramatic licence to craft an entertaining and heartwarming show with a clear political message.

This strike took place long before the time of Barbara Castle and the Equal Pay acts brought in by Labour, at a time when the attitude even amongst male trade unionists was that women worked for ‘pin money’ and their labour was always worth less than that of their menfolk. In fact, in the cruel world of the fishing communities many mothers were widowed by the loss of fishing vessels and became sole breadwinners for their families.

The cast of 23 are kept busy throughout this lively play which focuses on one extended family approaching the herring season at a time when shipowners and fish dealers were cutting pay rates harshly. Young sisters Esme and Pru are both unhappy with their family’s demand to join them in gutting and curing the herring into salted barrels. Hard work, physically demanding and socially isolating the employment has to pay to keep them throughout the year. Traditionally many Scottish women and girls came to join the local workforce, their families intermingling over the years. Many years ago I worked on Lowestoft fish market – the smells never leave you. The worst is when the catch has been slow landing or the ice has run out, and the fish start to rot. Nice.

Esme (Caitlin Woolrich) against her mother’s wishes gets a job as a servant to a local woman who also happens to be a leading suffragette, who encourages her to develop her political awareness. This brings Esme to become the instigator, leader and negotiator of the strike. Caitlin gives a great performance in this leading role as we see her develop from bumptious teenager into shrewd political operator. Prudence (Eva Wright) meanwhile swaps with her young brother as cabin boy on the father’s drifter, stowing away for a calamitous voyage. In suspicious fishing communities women on a ship is seen as a guarantee of bad luck. The scene is set for a rough passage!

The estimable Punch House Band give us a strong musical backdrop to the drama, with rousing songs to start and finish the play and throughout.

The play is a great entertainment and the first night in Heigham Park generally went well apart from a few details. A few sections were just inaudible, with not every member of the cast remembering that open air theatre requires mighty lungs and strong projection over the background sounds of wind in the trees, nearby barbecue parties and the occasional rude helicopter. Some of the accents were a bit odd. The Yarmouth and Lowestoft way of speaking is quite specific, if now rare, and it grated with me a bit when just the last word or two in a phrase was generically ‘Norfolkised’. If the accent does not come naturally better not to try, it is a distraction. But these are small quibbles about a show that is well-written, well paced and just the right length for an outdoor event. It is a brave production with a set layout that takes the action right into the middle of the audience. It stretches history a little – Lowestoft and Yarmouth do not really have a tradition of militant political activism, although the reputation of the Scots fishergirls remained fearsome when I grew up there in the 60s.

There is much humour in the show, always a joy to see Greg Lindsay-Smith perform, in this instance as Stan, the fishing boat skipper, and Russell J Turner gave a good account of the stereotypical union boss of the time. Joanna Swan gives a moving performance as Meg, the girls’ mother, and has a fine singing voice. There is even a rather splendid fishing smack on the set. This a story of women fighting for their rights and showing us the strength that they can have when they come together and fight for justice against the odds.

The message of the show is as relevant as ever, particularly this week. Working people have to be prepared to fight and fight again to get fair treatment from rich employers and government, and not give in to the patronising claptrap from people like Grant Shapps and grasping local employers. But mostly this is a fun show that works well in the open air, take a folding chair, or at least a blanket, maybe a picnic and a drink or two and a few bob if you can spare it for the collection buckets at the end. What could be better for a summer evening in the city?


© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 24th June 2022

We Will Stand, by Crude Apache, is a free open air show at many local venues until Sunday July 3rd:
Sun 26th June Ketts Heights, Norwich 2-30pm
Thurs 30th June Heigham Park, Norwich 7-30pm
Fri 1st July Waterloo Park, Norwich 7-30pm
Sat 2nd July Town Walls, Blackfriars Rd, Great Yarmouth 2-30pm
Sun 3rd July Cow Tower, Norwich 2-30pm