Kneehigh theatre was founded in 1980 to provide a broad-based programme of theatre for families in locations within their communities. They have performed in many unusual places, on cliff-tops, pits and quarries, in woods, in the sea, up trees and so forth. Their unusual and adventurous approach to theatre and their risky productions have made them a defining theatrical force in the UK. The company had a sell out run at the Donmar Warehouse in 1996 with " The King of Prussia" which was also written by Nick Darke.
Nick Darke has written over twenty plays for theatre, including "Ting Tang Mine", "The King of Prussia", "Landmarks", and "The Dead Monkey" which was recently performed at the Whitehall Theatre starring David Soul.
This play is directed by Mike Shephard, the founder of Kneehigh Theatre, and is loosely based on a true event that occurred in the port of Newlyn, Cornwall 1896, when there was a local dispute amongst fishermen over Sunday observance.
Fishermen from Newlyn, staunch Methodists, did not go to sea on the Sabbath, but visiting boats from Lowestoft (known as Yorkies) did and landed their fish on Monday thus reducing the price of the fish for Newlyn fishermen for the rest of the week. The local fishermen fight back by tipping the whole catch of the Yorkies 100,000 mackerels into the harbour. What starts as a peaceful protest soon turns into violence. Caught in the middle of the disturbance is Thomas Bolitho, local merchant, magistrate, mine owner and mayor. He seems to respect the fisherman's beliefs, but he is also a businessman and he knows that the violent nature of the dispute is not good for business. He tries to compromise with both sides, but soon finds his life is in danger when they both turn against him.
This is a top-notch production that is compulsive theatre for theatregoers who like a lot of activity, dreamlike confusion, comedy, thought provoking drama, and music in a play. The design by Bill Mitchell is simple but effective as the scene alternates from the kitchen of Thomas Bolitho, to the harbour and other places.
Lasting 1hour 20 minutes without an interval "The Riot" is a fascinating insight in to what life must have been like for fishermen around the turn of the last century when their livelihood depended on one industry. A hundred years on and not much has changed!
As usual there are some fine performances. Geoffrey Hutchins is convincing as 'Bolitho', the businessman who will risk his own life and others in the pursuit of protecting his business interests. I recently saw Hutchins' in "Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick" at the National playing' Sid James'. I must admit that at first I thought I would not enjoy this play because I could not get the impression of his portrayal of Sid James out of my mind. After all he looks so much like him! However, due to Hutchins' fine performance I was soon able to zone in on his character 'Bolitho'. I think though that the best performance has to be from Emma Rice who plays 'Harriet Screech' Bolitho's new maid who accuses Bolitho of causing the death of her brothers who died in an accident when they were forced to work overseas, because Bolitho closed down the local pit. She has a strong, hard presence on stage that the audience soon home in on.
The play has received mixed reviews from the popular press: DOMINIC CAVENDISH of TIME OUT says " The Riot has an enjoyable momentum, but it doesn't seem to get anywhere." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says, "The Kneehigh Company is undeniably impressive." NICK CURTIS of THE EVENING STANDARD says "Darke's equation of the problems of Cornwall then and now fails to come off, but it scarcely matters. We're too busy watching people being brained by barrel-staves, belted with washbasins or mistakenly carried off for burial."
This play will not appeal to a wide audience and it is not what one would call a classic. However, it is well produced with a solid cast and an interesting historical story, and certainly worth seeing.