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Review: Get Up And Tie Your Fingers, Customs House, South Shields

Ann Coburn's play about the fishing industry is complemented by a beautiful exhibition

The cast of Get Up and Tie Your Fingers: Left to right, Barbara Marten, Samantha Foley and Sian Mannifield with their fingers tied in the manner of the herring girls
The cast of Get Up and Tie Your Fingers: Left to right, Barbara Marten, Samantha Foley and Sian Mannifield with their fingers tied in the manner of the herring girls

Like the 19th Century herring fleets and the female gutting crews who used to follow them, this play has been travelling down the east coast.

It washed up at the Customs House with a beautiful set reminiscent of early mornings on the beach, all sun- and sea-bleached wood and dappled pastel shades of bluey green and silver.

I saw Ann Coburn’s play performed 16 years ago ‘in the round’ (audience on all sides) so a set wasn’t needed.

This time it wasn’t just a set that was needed for designer Alison Ashton has also been working with community groups to create a series of exhibitions linked to the play as it moves south.

Parts of the exhibition – a splendid fishing coble dressed in a bespoke knitted outfit and shoals of knitted herring – follow the play while others are specific to each location.

The Customs House exhibition cost the venue a little trade at the bar on Thursday because it was so rich and beautiful that it absorbed the entire interval for me.

It features the work of professional and amateur artists, including many prolific knitters, and talented North East schoolchildren.

All this is part of Follow The Herring, an ambitious community arts project that clearly demonstrates the value of such things.

So many people have played a part in it that you can imagine it is voyaging from Musselburgh to Hastings (with 10 stops in between) on a wave of goodwill and pride.

In the play, directed by Fiona MacPherson, three women are centre stage. Their lives revolve around fish and the dangers faced by their menfolk in bringing them ashore.

Jean comes across as strict and buttoned up. Barbara Marten, perfectly cast, embodies a woman who copes with past pain by obsessively cleaning and clings to daughter Molly (Samantha Foley) like a lifebelt.

Janet (Sian Mannifield), by nature jolly and garrulous, is both friend and foe. Unfazed by Jean’s rigidity, she enthrals Molly with racy tales of life in a travelling gutting crew.

Molly, though, doesn’t fancy working with fish and, in any case, she can’t grasp the necessary skills, like bandaging her fingers to guard against a slip of the knife.

Priorities change when the fleet is hit by a storm and the men are drowned, some within sight of shore.

A local choir of female voices evokes the sense of loss and grief that all too often engulfed communities like this.

In one heartrending moment Jean alludes to newspaper talk of posthumous medals to acknowledge the men’s courage. There will be none, she notes, for the women left behind to keep things going when all seems lost.

The play has its last performance here on Saturday night and then moves to Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre (and Hartlepool Art Gallery) from June 5-7.


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