Eastern Angles’ Oysters to make boat building sexy again
- Credit: Archant
Eastern Angles, Suffolk’s rural touring theatre company, has long made great drama by matching local history and legend with new writing. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to artistic director Ivan Cutting about his new play celebrating our oyster catchers...
Ships, sailing and the sea have helped shape the history of Suffolk and North Essex and remain some of our most important defining characteristics in this part of East Anglia.
They are also subjects which fascinate Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting and he finds himself repeatedly drawn back to our coastline and our maritime heritage.
He says that not only is it a rich part of our history but also provides theatre-makers with plenty of material for drama.
Ivan is returning to the windblown foreshore for Oysters, his latest play and Eastern Angles spring tour, a story which he describes with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye as: “a tale of sex, boat-building and bivalve molluscs.”
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He said that it was The Pioneer Sailing Trust which approached Ivan with the original idea for the play. “Bruce Anderson works for the Trust and he’s a great Eastern Angles fan. He came to us saying: ‘Why not do a play about the Oyster catchers. They had just finished restoring The Pioneer which is a deep sea oyster fishing boat and now they are working on two more inshore boats.” So they are helping to fund the play which fits nicely with our heritage brief. It will also take the story of boat-building and oyster catching out to a new audience which is what we have always been about – creating modern drama, new works, from our East Anglian heritage.”
He said that as he started his research – “after all these years I still know very little about sailing but Bruce and his colleagues were there to stop me making any silly mistakes” – he realised that the play had to be about boat-building, oyster catching and the mythical properties of oysters. “I needed all three elements to make the play work.
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“As we did with our play about lifeboats a couple of years ago, I like knitting together a fictional piece that weaves a story around a historical truth.”
He said that the play is notionally set on the Suffolk/Essex border and takes in the area’s boating and yachting history. “I wanted to do a contemporary play about a boat that’s being restored rather than a historical piece. I wanted the play to ask the same questions that we did when we visited the boat yard, namely: ‘Why are you spending so much time and effort restoring these old boats?’ A lot of time, love and care goes into these amazing restorations and we wanted them to articulate their love for these old craft.”
He said that one of the central questions tackled by the play is the tricky subject of when does a boat cease to become a restored old boat and become a modern replica?
“Because the original boat has been stuck in the mud for many decades, virtually all the original wood had rotted away and they are systematically having to replace virtually the whole boat during the restoration process.
“Although they are using the same types of wood and traditional boat-building techniques, and it looks as it would have done when new, we ask the question is it a genuine old sailing vessel or is it something new?
“We started talking to the Trust about that as a concept. How much of the original boat do you keep in order for it to be regarded as a vintage sailing vessel?
“So we incorporate that into our story which also looks at what happens to the local economy when the local boat-building yard goes bust and, of course, we can’t ignore the well-known aphrodisiac properties of oysters.
So it’s a mix of a town history and the story of oysters. We have a character called Pearl who floats through the play and represents the soul of oysters and has done something risqué in the local school classroom.
“It’s a curious tale and there’s a lot of humour in it and I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed writing it.”
He said that Oysters is a play of passions. “Mo, the boat-builder loves what he does. He’s passionate about restoring these old boats. He’s quite sparky. He’s not a grumpy old man. Then, there’s Angie, who’s his apprentice and then there’s the woman who owns the trust who they are working for, whose grandfather left the firm in trust and finally there’s Kasey, an intern, who’s come from the Open University and wants to find out about the past.”
They discover that in the past, the oyster men only fished in the winter and in the summer they lived the high life, crewing luxury yachts on the south coast and were well rewarded for their troubles. “We discover there’s a lot of resentment there from some people as well as a potentially dangerous class clash.
“What I love about our plays dealing with East Anglian heritage is that they are more about events and dates. They are about people. They are about the things that make us human.”
He said this is a tale about men who built boats with an ingrained sense of what was straight and fair which is reflected in their own outlook on the world but are they being corrupted?
One of the sub-plots, which weaves its way through the play without ever becoming overt, concerns itself with class. The woman who owns the Slipway centre is a descendant of the original owner and Mo is the descendant of the men who operated the boats and relied on the sea for their livelihoods.
Ivan said: “The Oyster men would only go out in the winter and spring because the classic saying goes that you only eat an oyster if there’s a ‘r’ in the month. Then in the summer they had nothing to do, so instead they went out on these big, flash yachts because they were good sailors and these expensive yachts needed crews for their summer races.
“During the summer they got board and lodgings, money for clothes as they made their way down to Southampton for the races.
“What’s not to like? But, lurking underneath there’s a huge class clash because every year these huge flash yachts would come down and hoover up all the local working men.”
This is then reflected in the construction of new flats on the site of old industry and the play looks at what happens when a town is denied the resources to employ its local workforce.
Oysters, by Ivan Cutting, is Eastern Angles’ spring tour which runs until June 6.