WHEN THE BOAT COMES IN REVIEW – Customs House

Guest blog by John Gregson from Blade Printers

As a young lad I vaguely remember gathering in the front room, with the whole family, watching a brand new serious on the TV called “When the boat comes in” – a gritty drama set in the 20’s and written by a local guy called James Mitchell.

What made it interesting for me, was that it had been shot in the North East, so a lot of the backdrops and scenery were quite familiar, so my parents kept on pointing out. Every now and then I’d hear, “I’ve been there” and “that’s the fish quay, that is” and when the show finished we’d all sing the catchy theme tune “Who shall have a fishy – on a little dishy – who shall have a fishy – when the boat comes in”, in our Geordie twang. Argh, those were the days.

Along with the location, they also used a lot of local actors, so the majority of the accents were bang on and the whole show was believable – so good, in fact, it was a nationwide hit generating over 15 million viewers, weekly – quite a coup in those days.

Fast forward 40 odd years and I’m travelling on the Metro to South Shields, or as it’s known in the TV show “Gallowshield”. We’re heading for “Customs House” who’ve commissioned a stage version written by the original authors son “Peter Mitchell”.

I was over the moon to be asked by “InNewcastle.co.uk” to cover this new play and pen a blog about it – but hadn’t factored in the hours travel each way while being deafened by the “who shall have a fishy, on a little dishy” earworm repeating over and over again in my head. Time for a little jig – but the Metro’s packed, I’ll give it a miss.

As a nice touch, Customs House and the Metro offer free Metro and Shields Ferry travel  (Two hours before and after, each show) which saved us just over a tenner – all that’s needed is a valid Theatre ticket for that nights show. Just show a conductor and they will let you travel!

Arriving early enabled us to take a look around the Grade 2 listed Customs House – and very impressive it is too. It was originally a customs post built in 1860 on the banks of the thriving river Tyne – unfortunately, the shipping industry declined and in 1960 it fell into disrepair.

The Tyne and Wear Development Corporation funded the development and turned it into the Arts, Entertainment and Cinema, Theatre it is now.

We settled for seats in the busy and well stocked “Green Room Bar” along with a good crowd of people eagerly awaiting the start of tonight’s show. By 7.20pm we were all seated in the Theatre and what cracking seats we had too, “Q15/Q16” in the upper circle, right at the front. The balcony wall and railings had been completely removed and then replaced with metre high sheets of toughened glass, this allowed fantastic views of the whole stage. A very ingenious idea, unless of course, you have vertigo, like the lady sitting in the adjacent seat to us.

For those who do have a fear of heights, maybe a lower seat would be a better choice. Tonight’s show would be played out in front of a packed house, a quick glance around the room didn’t reveal a single empty seat. Most were filled with the generation who remembered the TV series – some who may have even been the subject matter of play!

7.30pm prompt, the deafening sound of bombs startled the audience into total silence – Sergeant Jack Ford, played by local lad “Jamie Brown”, stood, centre stage, in full uniform.

One by one, items of his uniform were ripped or removed replicating what trench life was like, being shot and bombed in the First World War – then Jack stood alone, illuminated only by a single spotlight. This set the atmospheric tone for the night – it was going to be as gritty, if not more than the original series.

Scenes changed quickly from the war front to Jack returning home from active duty – straight into a pub, as usual. The props were changed by the actual actors themselves, as the play progressed – morphing from the trenches, to a bar scene and then to the Seaton household, all happening in full view with just a few modifications to tables, chairs and a few accessories.

After a few minutes, you didn’t notice the scenes changing, it became seamless – your concentration was directed more towards the superb acting, rather than set changes. Jack’s girlfriend, Jessie Seaton (Alice Stokoe) and the rest of the Seaton clan were introduced in a kitchen scene with banter going to and fro.

The dialect so fast and so Northern that some audience members, from a few miles outside of Gallowshield, may not have fully understood, or followed. Topics ranging from poverty, jobs, or the lack of them, and sexuality were all expertly covered and before you knew it, it was time for the interval.

A well-deserved break for the cast, who were all performing their socks off. After quick refreshments in the Green Room, where the noisy chat seemed to be all positive, we returned to our seats for the show to began again, which it did at the same electrifying pace as before.

There were a few more laughs in the second half than the first, but with material covered including tuberculosis, miners strike, child beating and even more poverty, it certainly isn’t a comedy.

The stand out moment for me was the scene where Jack tried to help a fellow soldier suffering from shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Jack snapped Will out of his torment and suffering by barking out his army drill commands “Attention” “At Ease” echoed around the packed theatre.

The acting by Jamie Brown and Luke Maddison, especially on this particular scene, was sublime – captivating yet harrowing, both at the same time. The whole of the audience was spellbound and caught up in the emotion of it all, quite a feat by two very talented actors.

A big thumbs up must also go to “Alice Stokoe” who played Jack’s spirited girlfriend, Jessie Seaton – in fact the whole cast deserves a mention as there wasn’t a missed line, stumbled word or a pause all night.

I’ll not spoil the plot for any theatregoers who haven’t seen the TV serious but would like to see this brilliant adaptation. Mr Ford certainly lived up to his name with the girls – he certainly is Jack the lad