We Will Stand – review (Crude Apache, 30th June 2022)
First of all, as much as I hate giving a synopsis of a production in my reviews, given that this was an original play, it’s almost unavoidable.
It is set in 1936 in Great Yarmouth and tells the story, in quite loose detail, of the Herring Girls’ strike. As the show’s writer, Panda Monium, mentions in her notes about the play, information about the strike and events leading up to it are quite hard to come by, so it’s a loose telling of the story through necessity rather than by design, but that’s probably worked in their favour as they get to be a bit more creative with history in this instance.
For the avoidance of doubt, the ‘Herring Girls’ were workers who were responsible for gutting and packing the fish caught by local fisherman, with some of the workforce coming from the Orkney Islands.
The story focused on one family in particular, a woman from the Orkney Islands, Meg, who has married a local fisherman, Stan, and they have three children, Esme, Pru, and Henry. Neither of the children are happy with their lot; Esme and Pru don’t want to be Herring Girls, which is what is expected of them, and Henry doesn’t want to work on the boat, which is what is expected of him. And it’s Esme’s attempts to rally the troops and raise strike action against their low-paying bosses that is the main focal point of the play.
The play itself was brilliantly written, poignant, powerful, and for want of an alliterative term, punchy. There was also a healthy smattering of wry humour in their too. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that it was so engaging that I wished it was longer. Of course, it was the perfect length for an outdoor production where you’re potentially at the mercy of the changeable weather, but the strike action and negotiations were wrapped up rather neatly and quickly when I guess there probably would have been more struggle and turmoil. But the message that the play was communicating was the important part, and within the time parameters, it was still a very neatly told story.
The cast were all excellent, not really a weak link amongst them in terms of the acting. Though it was very much an ensemble piece, there were a few standout performers. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Meg and Mharie, portrayed by Joanna Swan and Su Squire respectively. Though they looked nothing alike, they were so completely believable as sisters, such was the chemistry between them, and they were a joy to watch; whether it was in the powerful or the more playful moments, they both struck every note perfectly.
Caitlin Woolrich as Esme was very strong too, and she had to be, as she was very often the focal point. Given the rousing speeches she was asked to recite, it would have been tempting to overdo it, but she played the slightly reluctant spokeswoman with seeming ease. A special mention also to Emma Ewins, whose singing voice was absolutely enchanting.
I was sitting quite far back from the action in Heigham Park, and it was only the two youngest members of the cast that I struggled to hear on occasions, which is commendable for outdoor theatre, where your voice doesn’t have walls and ceilings to bounce off. Those that chose to do Scottish accents did it excellently, and when I interviewed Joanna Swan a few weeks ago, she mentioned that she would also be singing in a Scottish accent, and true to her word, she did, and superbly I might add. Though it would be easy to dismiss the Norfolk accent as easy for locals, there is a huge difference between a Norwich accent and those of folks from the coastal regions, but Greg Lindsay-Smith led the way in showing how it’s done.
The Punch House Band provided musical accompaniment throughout, and with their folksy charm, really lifted the performance to an even higher plane. The songs themselves were composed by Tim Lane, who also played guitar in the band, and matched the tone of the play superbly.
Even though the play ended on a high note, there was still reference to the struggle for women to be taken seriously even today, with Pru’s father not allowing her to help on board the boat out of a sense of tradition, despite recognising that she is more than capable of holding her own. Not that women’s rights have ever not been topical, but given the current climate with regards to the lack of power that some feel they should wield even with regards to their own bodies, the play couldn’t have felt more relevant than at a time like this. This was my first time seeing Crude Apache in action, and I was so impressed, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever they produce next.