THE GAUL at HULL TRUCK THEATRE
Constituting the second of three plays set in and around Hull (to coincide with its 2017 status as City of Culture), “The Gaul” tells of the loss of the fishing trawler bearing the same name. With Hull playwright Janet Plater having set much of the story in the kitchen of a family directly affected by the loss of the trawler, the resultant emotional rollercoaster ensures that nobody who experiences the play leaves the theatre unmoved.
With the initial scene set in 1973, the audience is thrust straight into family affairs, schoolgirl Kay (played by ever-wonderful Hull actress Hester Arden) showing how affected she is by her father’s constant comings and goings as a trawlerman. Well-versed in snatching three-day “weekends” with her father before he heads back out into the North Sea for another ten weeks of work, she is the hardest-hit of all family members when the trawler that her father is working on mysteriously goes missing in 1974.
Having “disappeared,” nothing – it seems – remains of the trawler. Plunged into raw grief, Kay begins to converse with her father in dream-states, her father forever telling her to stay strong. Mam, played brilliantly by Sarah Parks, provides the family glue, ever-ready to sidle up to the timeworn kitchen worktop in order to make a brew.
Cleverly, the play moves through time, catching back up with Kay and her Mam in 1997, an ingeniously employed radio broadcast reminding us that New Labour had just been ushered into government, Tony Blair the Prime Minister. The reason that the play fast-forwards to such a point boils down to the fact that John Prescott pressed for extensive surveys of the wreck of the Gaul after it was located with the aid of a TV crew. A pivotal scene sees Kay and Mam introduced to a representative from Anglia, the TV crew determined to locate the Gaul, with Kay deciding to accompany the search party, desperate to wrangle some sense of closure from seeing for herself the final resting place of her father.
With art imitating life, Plater has delved deep into the possible reasons behind the Gaul’s disappearance, fielding all ramifications tied to the idea that the Gaul might have been spying on Russian vessels. Could the trawler really have been “abducted” by a couple of Russian vessels before the crew of the Gaul had chance to issue a “Mayday” signal? Alternatively, was human error to blame for the trawler’s sinking?
So obsessed with finding out exactly what became of the Gaul, Kay analyses every single scrap of evidence that comes her way, asking all the right questions, attacking the mystery as level-headedly as possible in light of such personal circumstances.
Given that the play is set in Hull, in a small house on Hessle Road, a road once synonymous with fishing, Plater knowingly name-checks all manner of pubs and clubs that were well-patronaged back in the seventies. Still, for all its focus on Hull, “The Gaul” is by no means a play that will appeal exclusively to people from Hull and surrounding area. To the contrary, it’s a play that will resonate with theatregoers on an international scale, not least because its grief-anchored narrative lunges for the jugular and heart in one fell swoop. It’s impossible not to be moved by the family’s loss, the family at the heart of the play representing all of the families who lost fathers, brothers and sons in the Gaul tragedy.
Dad, played by James Hornsby, adds further texture to the human angle of the story, the manner in which he “visits” Kay in the final scene prior to the interval proving a tear-jerking triumph of acting as he walks “beside” his daughter while jollying her into laughter with his old Tommy Cooper-styled “Paper Bag Trick.”
Ultimately bringing things bang up-to-date, the final scene of the play is set in October 2016. Incorporating one final “visitation” from Dad, Kay appears to finally accept her loss, jubilantly holding aloft her beloved Hull City scarf that had once belonged to her father.
As tough as it is tender, “The Gaul” is a thoroughly gripping slice-of-life drama from a wonderfully talented writer, the story having been brought to the stage under the expert direction of Mark Babych.
All things considered, “The Gaul” is a beautifully staged masterpiece: testament to all involved.