After intense research into the shipping disaster, reading testimonials and speaking with families, Janet Plater was bound to produce a historically accurate yet heartfelt play. The Gaul went missing on 8 February 1974, along with its 36-man crew, all but two of which were from Hull. There was no mayday signal, no wreckage and no clue as to what actually happened that night for over two decades. On the eve of 2017, Hull Truck Theatre’s The Gaul acts as a beacon to explore possible answers to the mystery of the city’s lost trawler ship.
The Gaul is the second part of the Hull Trilogy, the first instalment being Richard Vergette’s Dancing Through the Shadows, which narrated the story of the city during the Second World War. Next year will see the final component in Mighty Atoms by Amanda Whittington, a contemporary piece about Hull’s female boxers.
The story behind The Gaul essentially takes place at the kitchen sink, and it is as much about the women who are left behind – “The Anchors” as Plater phrases it – as it is about the men fishing around Iceland. Most of the characters are introduced as they head out for a Christmas celebration; Kay (Hester Arden) is a young schoolgirl left behind, whilst Dad (James Hornsby) takes Mam (Sarah Parks) out for a Chinese with his trawler friend Davy (Marc Graham) and his wife Linda (Rachel Dale). A few weeks pass and the Three-Day Millionaires, having paid the housekeeping and spent the rest of their fortunes on booze, set off for yet another ten weeks at sea. Sadly, The Gaul was never to berth at its hometown again.
The daunting hull of the ship looms over the sitting room throughout the entirety of the production, reflecting the burden of the mystery hanging heavy around the necks of the characters. Ian (Niall Costigan), Kay’s older brother, reluctantly continues his employment aboard the dangerous vessels, spending dry days drowning his miseries at the local pubs and clubs. In the meantime, the trio of women struggle through the years without their men, missing both their presence and income. Blackouts and the harder times of the Thatcher years take their toll on the families, whilst Dad and Davy linger like ghosts, assuring the girls that they’ll be home in a few weeks. Through the years, conspiracies arise surrounding the city’s lost ship, including the possibility of human error and The Gaul actually being a spy operation with its crew now living in Russia.
The second act is markedly different from the first, although the intimidating steel framework of the ship is not going anywhere. The kettle changes with the times, as the characters try to do the same. It is now 1997 and both Linda and Mam have remarried; meanwhile, Kay has been to university and moved away to a landlocked Leicester. Hull’s heroes are still a huge weight on their shoulders, as each individual has a different explanation for what happened to the men. Linda, now practically a stranger to the family, is still a staunch believer that it was the Russians, whilst Kay thinks that there must have been a design flaw. Even after the television crew discover the wreck 23 years after the ship went down, questions remain unanswered. But Plater begins formulating her own explanations through the art of theatre, taking us right the way up to October 2016.
The play is certainly not light-hearted, although it does have its fun and nostalgic moments, to which audience members that remember the halcyon days of the fishing trade will react especially well. References to Carmen rollers, platform shoes, leggings and the Labour landslide of the 90s will also bring a smile to your face no matter what your birth year, and we can all appreciate the frequent appearance of the proud Hull City scarf.
The Gaul runs at Hull Truck Theatre until Saturday 29 October. For info and tickets, please visit hulltruck.co.uk or call their Box Office on 01482 323638.
Photography: Andrew Billington