DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Gaul – Hull Truck Theatre

Writer: Janet Plater

Director: Mark Babych

Designer: Patrick Connellan

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The loss of the Gaul and all 36 of her crew in 1974 is regarded as the greatest single-trawler tragedy in UK history. It has left a permanent mark on the former Hull fishing community: only two years ago a memorial service commemorated 40 years since the sinking.

Like Hillsborough, the story of the Gaul bites deeper than the considerable human tragedy. There is the mystery of the whole thing: the Gaul was almost new and equipped with the latest safety devices, so why should it have been the only trawler to sink when many others were fishing in the same area of the Barents Sea? And why did it send no distress signal? So out came the conspiracy theories, the more far-fetched involving Russian spies.

Not without reason, Hull feels itself,to be a neglected outpost of the UK, so the continued refusal of Government to investigate thoroughly rankled with the community. When the wreck was finally found, various chutes and hatches were open: design fault or human error? The emotional impact of the Gaul tragedy on 21st century Hull also hinges on the coincidence that the decline and disappearance of the fishing industry pretty much datefrom that point onwards.

Janet Plater’s play is remarkable in appearing simple while in reality, touching many bases and visualising the Gaul tragedy from many different perspectives. At the core is the story of a fictional family, initially at Christmas 1973: Dad and Mam and two children, Kay and Ian. Dad is a trawlerman who has changed shift to sail on the Gaul to be with his mates. Ian also works on the trawlers and Kay is a bright schoolgirl. Linda and Davy, their friends, are a younger couple with small children and Davy, too, sails on the Gaul. The human cost of the tragedy is explored over the years until the present, with the survivors making new lives, but never escaping the old loss.

Around the fragmentary narrative of 42 years of ordinary life dominated by one extraordinary event Plater brings us gently moving appearances of Dad and Davy, brief evocations of the stormy Barents Sea, consideration of theories and discoveries and, finally, a paean of praise to Hull, much changed as it is, and a tribute to the 36 men of the Gaul.

Thoughof course, he disappears from the main narrative line fairly early, James Hornsby’s beautifully judged performance as Dad colours the whole evening: a man of undoubted goodness and awful jokes, even when being buffeted by the Barents Sea or appearing as a ghost to Kay. Nobody does matter-of-fact and down-to-earth with a slyer wit than Sarah Parks – and she finds the emotional intensity as Mam when needed.

Hester Arden (Kay) copes very well with the challenge of turning from gauche fashion-conscious teenager to ambitious unsatisfied adult – the teenager may be a bit overdone, but it’s very cleverly overdone. Niall Costigan (Ian) undergoes an equivalent transformation, anger remaining central to his character, and Rachel Dale and Marc Graham are straightforwardly convincing as the younger couple.

Mark Babych’s direction is unfussy, simple even, but achieves considerable emotional impact, Max Pappenheim’s music adds much to the otherworldly scenes, and Patrick Connellan’s functional kitchen set is far more flexible than appears at first, with the aid of Paul Keogan’s atmospheric lighting.

Runs until 29 October 2016 | Image: Andrew Billington

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