I recognise one of the men as actor Martin Barrass, a Truck mainstay who took the lead in the recent revival of Alan Plater’s Confessions of a City Supporter. The other is introduced to me as the man that Barrass is to play in Every Time it Rains: Michael Barnett senior, whose son tragically died of hypothermia on 25 June 2007, the first day of the floods.
Creed met Barnett during the course of his research into the floods, which was originally undertaken to produce a book but has now also been employed in the play. Its plot is divided between two parts. One consists of a pair of fictional story lines that are amalgamations of numerous experiences recounted to Creed during his research. The second is a stringently faithful account of Michael Barnett junior’s death and the discovery by a policeman that his leg was trapped in a drain on a suburban street in Hessle in which the floodwater, his father tells me, moved like a train. “That element of the story has to be absolutely real,” Creed says. “You can’t fictionalise anything or change it for poetic license. It’s the story of Michael’s experiences on the day and afterwards and also those of a police officer called Richard Clark, who was the first to attend that day.”
After Barrass swiftly returns to rehearsals, Barnett, who has come to collect his tickets for the show, agrees to talk to us. Although he has consented to the use of material from his interview with Creed in the production, as well as contributing to the editing of the script and attending rehearsals, he is withholding judgment in some respects. “I don’t know till I see it on Friday,” he explains. “I said to Rupert, ‘No, you can’t use it’, but he said, ‘We did one (i.e. another “oral history”-based play) about seamen’. I’m still not convinced about whether or not it should be done – I’m still not a hundred percent.”
Every Time it Rains possibly represents the purest rendition of Truck’s dramatic formula. It was written by a playwright who has lived in the city for over 30 years and whose previous work includes other local interest plays; it is set in Hull, but will appeal to audiences not by presenting a glamourised representation of life there, but by pinpointing the hardships and dilemmas that are sometimes faced by the inhabitants of that gritty city; its claim to replicate events there is grounded not in a presumption that its creators understand those on whom its characters are based, but on interviews with them; it takes the premise that whatever matters to and affects Hull’s people is suitable, and often ideal, subject matter for a play to its logical extreme. The concept of the stage as a mirror of its audience will be similarly fortified during a performance for contributors to Creed’s research. “That’s an amazing experience,” he says, “because, really, the play is putting the audience that’s watching it onstage. It’s a very moving thing when people sit there seeing their own stories replayed to them. Even though, in Michael’s case, it’s a very sensitive and tragic story, I think that there’s a huge power in sharing it with people.”
The play also depicts the sense of civic solidarity and ethic of compassion that were evidenced by responses to the floods. “There was a bloke who’d just moved in – a London lad – who said, ‘You wouldn’t have got that where I come from – you’re all helping each other’,” Barnett recalls. “I think it’s got something to do with the (World War Two) bombing that our parents went through. In those days you’d just knock on the door and say, ‘Are you alright?’. ‘Do you want anything from the shop?’ ‘Have you got some sugar to lend me?’” Creed continues the theme, highlighting that interviewees made comparisons to the Blitz not only for this reason, but also because the flooding in Hull was comparatively underreported. “It was the worst-affected city,” he observes, “but, actually, because there were so many dramatic pictures from Sheffield and Tewkesbury at the time that a lot of people thought, ‘Well, Hull didn’t really get a mention’. It’s the classic thing about Hull thinking of itself as the forgotten city – during the War you couldn’t mention its name because of intelligence.”
Indeed, far from blaming the police and fire services for his son’s death, Barnett praises their work, as well as that of flood support workers and community wardens. (This is in contrast to his approach to Hull City Council and East Riding Council, whose attitude since the floods he chastises with the aid of several examples, the most poignant of which being his observation that the drain on which Michael Barnett junior died has since flooded again.) “I felt so strongly about people saying that I was blaming them that I said to the fire chief and the police chief, ‘I think that these lads want commendations. It’s not up to me to do it, it’s up to you,’” he recollects. “The fire brigade didn’t invite me, but the police did – they sent me a letter inviting me to the guildhall. They were all there having their photographs taken with their families. As soon as they got to the end they came straight to me and shook my hand and went back to sit down. Every one of them did. That was what it meant to them that I’d forgiven them.”
As well as examining events surrounding the floods, Every Time it Rains also follows their longer-term consequences. Creed and Barnett both mention several of these, including the moves to temporary accommodation such as caravans that many people made, the damage done to families, the distress caused to elderly people who were uneasy about returning to their repaired homes and the exorbitant insurance premiums now charged for properties considered likely to be in peril if the city were to flood again. The play’s title, Creed tells me, references the way in which the psyche of a whole city has been fractured. “The reason the play is called Every Time it Rains is that, again, people kept saying to us, ‘Do you know, every time it rains I start getting anxious’, or, ‘Every time it rains I’m out the back checking the drains’,” he reveals. “I’ve had people telling me that, in some of the schools they work in, if there’s heavy rain the children will start feeling terribly anxious and wondering about whether it’s going to happen again. If you think about a whole city’s attitude to weather, it’s the great British talking point, but now it’s almost as if it’s become Hull’s trauma point.”
-Rupert Creed and Michael Barnett senior were talking to Simon Walker
Every Time it Rains is at Hull Truck Theatre between 18 June and 4 July
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