Full steam ahead

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The Independent Culture
It has never breached the Brazilian rainforest to the sound of Caruso's voice but, like the paddle-steamer in the Herzog film, the theatre ship MV Fitzcarraldo is no stranger to danger. In an earlier life, it was a passenger ferry in the Arctic Circle, but crossing those icy waters was easy compared to last week's five-hour trip from Nantwich to Warrington, let alone the last five years' struggle to keep a theatrical vision afloat.

Despite low water levels on the River Weaver, the Fitzcarraldo made it to Latchford Locks for the performance of Kevin Fegan's Seven Tenths, but the ship is undoubtedly happier at sea. Now last week's National Lottery award of pounds 328,000 will transform the ship's nautical and theatrical potential. Walk the Plank, the company that runs it, can buy the ship outright, and, without expensive lease payments, a larger proportion of project money can go into productions.

When Liz Pugh and John Wassell first brought the ship over from Norway in 1991, the plan was to take drama round the coast and islands of Britain, and, in 1992, they completed a tour with funding from the Arts Council matched by dozens of seaside towns and villages. A year on, two months before the ship was due to set sail again, the Arts Council cancelled its project grant.

"That was our lowest point," says Pugh, "because we'd already booked the company and crew and arranged the venues. I hated letting people down." But last year, with Manchester as the City of Drama and the Manchester Ship Canal marking its centenary, the Fitzcarraldo seemed an ideal host for festival events. Salford City Council gave it a free berth and, for two years now, the gaily painted ship has been a landmark on Salford Quays, attracting visitors for spectacles, plays and music nights and setting off along the Ship Canal for a series of tours of new writing, usually with a nautical theme.

Walk the plank to see a Fitzcarraldo show and it's always an adventure. Most performances take place on the aft deck, with the stage set backing into a deep cargo hold and the frequent involvement of the ship's nautical facilities, particularly its pump and bucket technology. While I've never been soaked through, I've seen a few near-misses. And while there have been failures with new writing, the energy, visual virtuosity and fun invested in every show usually mean that it is difficult to leave without a smile.

Though it won't give up its inland voyages, the Lottery award means that the Fitzcarraldo can now take to the seas again, and with significant improvements. "One simple thing is that actors won't have to do The Watch any more," says Pugh. "It can be exciting at first, but three months into a tour, standing on deck for four hours gets pretty boring. Now an auto- pilot will put an end to all that." But not, we hope, to the spirit of adventure.

n Walk the Plank: 0161-873-7350