FOLLOW THE HERRING, SALUTE THE PAST
That early morning cry that woke the herring lassies: women who, through the great days of the Victorian herring fisheries, met the fleet as it crowded into the east coast ports so dense that “you could cross the harbour boat to boat, dry-footed”. They had to tie rags round their fingers to protect them from the viciously sharp knives and from the preserving salt. The fast ones could gut a fish every second.
In Ann Coburn’s play – which has become immensely loved in these small places which remember their history – young Molly doesn’t want to gut herrings. She is bored at home with her dour mother Jean, who cleans obsessively. Molly loves to hear rorty tales from the widowed family friend Janet, who used to be a travelling herring-girl following the fleets from Scotland to Great Yarmouth with a “crew” of friends. They’d crowd the railway carriages, stamp through the towns in their heavy boots and scandalize the quiet locals with their laughter and liberty. Molly wants to see the world a bit, as they did; her mother wants to keep her close.
The play – touring through the summer down the coast from Musselburgh to Margate and beyond – is a simple thing, and a delight. In each town a local women’s choir forms and gathers around the principals, to sing the haunting score by Karen Wimhurst incorporating folksong and hymns and strange sea-harmonies. 400 women have learnt it over the run, and it creates a warm local involvement, palpable in the room, as the choir troop on in aprons and headscarves as their great-grandmothers might have done. I caught it in Great Yarmouth, in the fabulously restored church which is now St George’s Theatre. It rang to the rafters.
Fiona MacPherson of the Guild of Lillians directs with a straightforward unpretentious energy, confidently allowing deep tense silences and wordless moments of emotion. There is plenty of that, because the event at the heart of the play – once the women’s relationship and the fascinating niceties of their craft is established – is the disaster of October 1881. A hundred and twenty-nine men and boys were lost in a sudden storm, many of them swept to their death in clear view of the women waiting and hauling on the shore.
Years ago in a tapestry in Eyemouth museum, I discovered that two of my kinsmen were among the lost that night: Charles and James Purves (there aren’t that many of us with an -es, even in that border country). But even without that, anybody would be touched by this honest, gentle memorial to tough lives, courage and the endurance of women. Barbara Marten’s Jean is a superb, restrained performance with great depth: the tragedy of her own youth and the root of her anxiety only gradually unveiled but subtly apparent all through. Samantha Foley’s Molly is a delight, ingenue without a touch of selfconsciousness; and Sian Mannifield is a fiercely funny, warmly human Janet. It’s a treat. It’s as well worth the catching as the silver darlings themselves.