Note: The following review dates from the production's run at the National-Cottesloe in February 1999.
Just imagine the scene at the harbour in Newlyn, Cornwall one Sunday in 1896 when a thousand local fisherman gathered, overtook the boats of their rival East Coast fisherman, known as Yorkies, and tipped their catch of 100,000 mackerel into the sea. Tension escalated further when the Yorkies tried to dock their remaining boats at Penzance, Newlyn s neighbour and age-old enemy.
At one level, the riot which ensued was a religious protest for the locals who, as staunch Methodists, were opposed to fishing on the Sabbath. But, at another level, it was the act of a people pushed to extremes by the pressures of poverty, unemployment and end-of-century panic. A people terrified about losing their very way of life in the face of fast-changing times.
Sound familiar? Though the incident which The Riot is based on may be historic and localised, the circumstances are bang-up-to-date and universal. Intentionally so. As playwright Nick Darke comments in the programme, “There s no point in plundering the past unless you intend to illuminate the present.”
The exuberant Kneehigh company help banish any thoughts of scholarship as they bound around Bill Mitchell s tiered set, doubling and trebling their characterisations, singing, banging drums and weaving a farcical spell through the action. Under Mike Shepherd s assured direction, they also prove accomplished in slipping in and out of time and geographical shifts. While the majority of the scenes take place in the chaotic kitchen of the local merchant prince, Bolitho, acts committed at the harboursides, in the ice factory and on the farflung battlefields of Bulawayo, to which local miners were forced to emigrate after the closure of the Cornish tin mines, all mount to a crescendo which brings the fighting and the consequences to Bolitho s very door.
Everyone, it transpires, even his closest confidantes, hates old Bolitho, blames him for the town s troubles (as well as every death going - and there are many) and aches to get their own back in blood from the rich businessman. Which, watching from the audience, is a little hard to swallow. Geoffrey Hutchings is so entertaining as the astute wheeler-dealer that it s impossible to share in the baying for his blood. Far easier to feel annoyed, though still amused, by the rest of the rabble for thinking such a situation can have a single scapegoat.
But then, these are simple, coarse folk who don t pretend to be anything different. Even the women smoke pipefuls of dark black tobacco and stuff their burlap sacks full of kitchen knives to go ‘a-stabbing at the slightest provocation.
In this well-acted troupe, Emma Rice as the dumbfounded but not so dumb Harriet Screetch deserves special recognition. Just the kind of girl-next-door you d like sharing your hymnbook. If only to prove that, one, it takes all types, and two, some funny old things are done in the name of religion.