Naughty-cal deeds lead to fishty-cuffs

Ancient Mariner

Ancient Mariner - Credit: Archant

Eastern Angles upholds its tradition of an alternative Christmas show with something a bit fishy. Andrew Clarke investigates

Holy Mackrell

Holy Mackrell - Credit: Archant

Those of a certain age will remember the fishy dramas that triggered The Cod War in the 1970s, but who has heard of The Fish Riots?

No? Well Eastern Angles Christmas Show Holy Mackerel plans to tell the tale of how East Anglian fishermen were tempted to sail round to Cornwall and replace the locals when they refused to go to sea on a Sunday.

The show is the brainchild of Tim Bell and Harry Long of Shanty theatre company which is a small scale rural touring company in the south-west and could be considered Eastern Angles west country cousins.

“We did a production called The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which Ivan Cutting (artistic director of Eastern Angles) came to see and asked if we would be interested in doing a Christmas show. We jumped at the chance.”

Tim may be based in the west country now but he grew up in East Anglia and watching Eastern Angles show in the village hall provided the original inspiration to be an actor.

Later on he appeared in the Eastern Angles tour The Cuckoo Teapot in 2008 before moving away and setting up his own theatre company based in Devon.

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“I feel as if life has come full circle,” he laughs, “I have to pinch myself sometimes because my earliest theatrical experience came from watching the Eastern Angles Christmas show and now I’m directing one.

“The Christmas show is special. For our family it was part of our Christmas ritual driving into Ipswich to see the Eastern Angles Christmas Show on Christmas Eve. We always did it on the same day every year and tickets were booked way in advance and it was an important part of the build-up to the big day.”

Based on historical events, Holy Mackerel tells the story of how Norman, clad only in his nightshirt, can resolve the Victorian fish riots between the fancy East Anglian seafarers and the Cornish fishermen. It’s a show told with humour, plenty of sea-shanties and nautical fishty-cuffs.

“Harry and I were looking for a topic that united our two companies. We both create theatre with a sense of place and we were casting around for something to do when we stumbled across the Newland Fish Riots – which we knew immediately was a God-send.

“In the late 1890s, the Cornish, being very religious, refused to go to sea on a Sunday. The East Anglian fishermen, being a godless bunch and rather cheeky, saw an opportunity, sailed round the coast, fished Cornish waters and then had the temerity to sell their catch at Cornish markets to the very people whose jobs they had taken.

“The locals got very annoyed by this, as you would expect, and one weekend blockaded the East Anglian boats in the harbour. They stormed the boats, threw the fish back into the sea and the police had to be called in from Penzance to sort the whole thing out and restore order.

“So this event forms to backdrop to our play. As with any piece based on a historic event, there is a fictional story which weaves through the action. There will be the usual mix of songs and silliness that you would expect in a Christmas show.

“Having grown-up watching the Eastern Angles Christmas show I know only too well about how important it is to get that mix between story, music and absurdity. I love the shows with dry, subversive humour.

“Talking about Holy Mackerel the other day I described it to someone as Blackadder meets Horrible Histories.”

Holy Mackerel is a family show in the way that The Simpsons is a family show rather than a children’s show. “It’s a huge honour to inherit the Eastern Angles tradition of funny, clever Christmas shows while bringing our own take on that.”

The show will feature five actor-musicians who will continue the hat-swapping fun that characterises small-scale theatre-making where actors play multiple roles. “There will be lots and lots of music. Our actors play lots of instruments, so they will be picking up an instrument, performing a song, putting them down again before picking a different instrument to play something new.”

Tim says being a multi-instrumentalist isn’t the biggest challenge – instead it’s mastering the two distinctive regional accents.

“Being from East Anglia I wince whenever I hear a badly spoken accent. Our cast come from one of the two places and therefore are having to learn the other accent. Rehearsals are fun because we have situations where a west country actor is playing a Suffolk man, talking in a Suffolk accent, to a Suffolk actor who is playing a Cornish fisherman, speaking in a west country accent. It’s a recipe for a lot of fun and I suspect a few tears.”

Tim is thrilled with the calibre of the cast that has been attracted to the show between them they have appeared in Les Miserables in the West End, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the Southbank, West Yorkshire Playhouse and on Broadway.

Writer and fellow Shanty founder Harry Long will also be performing as will actor Daniel Copeland who has all ready had the honour of having performed with both Shanty and Eastern Angles before and knows exactly the degree of inspired silliness that is required to lure shoals of happy audience members into their theatrical nets. w

Holy Mackerel, by Eastern Angles and Shanty Theatre Company, runs at Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich from December 2 to January 6 and at Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge from January 12 to 23 2016.