The Hop - Pickers

Tuesday, 9 September, 1997

I shall look forward with hope that this becomes a reality. The Bernard Miles inspired theatre, so often dark, has everything that's needed for working new productions. Indeed, it is hard to resist the thought that the combined energies of the Mermaid and it's near neighbour the Brideswell Theatre might do a wonderful job of nursing new plays for transfers to the West End.

Sally Warboyes story seems to flow from real experiences of a richly rewarding aspect of London life. Before the last world war, it was indeed the practice of 'real' East Enders from Stepney, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey and Bow to "holiday" in Kent, the Garden of England picking hops for not much more reward than their keep in voluntary concentration camps.

You might say that it is musical comedy's answer to John Steinbeck's Grapes Of Wrath. Sean Blowers playing Jack is a weekend visitor, from his work as a docker, to the hop fields where his wife, the Angelica Houston lookalike, Kim Ismay playing Laura, is getting her hands dirty in the fields for, and with, the owner Aaron Collings playing Richard.

Richard has his own problems. His marriage is not benefitting from his lechery, nor is he enarmoured with the idea that he will soon have to reduce his casual labour force to accommodate the new hop picking machinery. He's definitely a hands man. All over the fields and all over Laura.

The sub plots are well worked on the whole. Jack and Laura's fifteen year old daughter, Kay, played refreshingly by Tracey Murphy, is ripe for picking but she survives a series of misadventures without losing her important parts. Her lustful suitor, Zachhi (Steve Trowell) will go far - as a genuinely talented saxaphone player - but vocally his hop field doesn't nurture the brew which reaches the parts that other beers don't.

Richard's wife, Julia (Jane Lucas) has a difficult role. She spends much of the time moaning about her husband's treachery and has a difficult time with her Tilly Girl maid, (Tanya Nicole). Most of her problems for me, was the fact that she was locked away in a cubicle stage left, where it was difficult to pick up the nuances.

In a cockney inspired play there are plenty of nuances and some more obvious opportunities for humour. Brianny (David Stone), Milly (Vanessa Clarke), and Fran (Maureen Hartley) all get the right jellied eels flavour and Brianny's luck holds out when, despite thieving everything in sight, he get's the girl and a new position driving the machine which deprives his mates of next year's holiday.

He did 'em a favour, son. Put 'em back in the workhouse.

I shall look forward to seeing The Hop - Pickers again, and by that time I hope they will have produced some original songs to replace the, sometimes ill-placed, standards like Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Be In Carolina and Deep In The Heart Of (wait for it) Hopping. There's more than enough musical talent in the shape of the Musical Director, Warren Wills and Steve Trowell to come up with some memorable, relevant numbers.

Caroline Hurst's choreography will shine through when the hoofers learn to play drunks and Bert (Stephan Aintree) puts his admirable talent for drunkeness into his dance. This good company needs more work, more singing, and less excrutiating and distracting sound faults. Enthusiasm is not a substitute for poor pitch or tunelessness.

Good my son.

(John Timperley)

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