When Bristol's boat comes in

Bristolians are about to be reminded in a spectacular way of their city's original focal point: the harbour. Down at the docks, Toby O'Connor Morse meets the men who are dramatising its maritime past
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It's a long time since they last unloaded bananas in Bristol docks. In fact, it's a long time since they unloaded anything. For 20 years the docks lay abandoned and decaying, the discarded and unloved heart of a once-great trading city. Now, however, the still waters of the Floating Harbour are coming back to life, as the area – rechristened the Harbourside – witnesses a parade of architects' fancies rising in sandstone and glass on the old quays.

But amid the cascade of financial institutions and service industries, Bristolians are in danger of forgetting that the docks were once the city's raison d'être. So the Bristol Old Vic has decided it's time for its players to stroll from their Georgian playhouse down to the quayside to present Up the Feeder, Down the 'Mouth and Back Again, a spectacular celebration of the city's recent maritime history.

Up the Feeder – the full title refers to the route taken by ships making their tortuous way up the Avon to the docks – was first staged in the more conventional surroundings of the Theatre Royal four years ago. Drawing on interviews with over 30 dockers and other waterside folk, ACH Smith's play is a distillation of the legends and realities of Bristol's native industry.

The new production takes that material and places it into its natural setting, on the quay at Bristol's Industrial Museum. The sense of verisimilitude is further enhanced with the Museum's resources of working steam trains, fork-lift trucks and a crane that – thanks to the loving ministrations of a crack squad of volunteers – will be in action for the first time since 1974. The highlight of the original production was the majestic entry of a steamer's bow. This time they've got the real thing: a 1,000-ton cargo ship that will manoeuvre round the harbour and up to the dock every night to unload its payload of bananas.

According to Gareth Machin, who was assistant director on the original production and is co-director on the new open-air production, "when the play was staged in the Theatre Royal, we all recognised that the material there was worth a second airing in some shape or form. There is a difference between doing it now and doing it four or five years ago, which is that the docks have changed a lot in that time. All the new developments, new bridges and so on, have put the focus back on that area of the city, and by doing so have changed the identity of the waterside".

Bristol has also seen a massive influx of newcomers in recent years, people moving into the city who don't have a sense of the city's history, even that of only 30 years ago. According to Machin, "it felt timely to remind people why there are cranes here. Most people will never have seen those cranes move". Both Machin and Smith see Up the Feeder as more than a simple celebration of the city's history. They both feel that Bristol is a city that is looking around for a focus point. "There has always been this more abstract question: 'Bristol is here because it's a port, now it isn't a port, why is it here?'," says Smith. "I realised that one reason why it resonated for me is that it's exactly the same question on a small scale that is now being asked about England in general."

In a microcosmic reflection of the nation, the city is in the midst of the passage from a great trading history into a future based on leisure, finance and other intangibles. "Bristol has come to the end of what it used to be," believes Smith, "and its going to take a while for it to find what it's going to be next."

Machin feels that the Bristol Old Vic's contribution can help in that process: "The natural heart of the city is the docks, and maybe by doing this production we are in some small way helping Bristol define itself as a city. Although there's a sense of loss within the play, of a way of life that has now gone, we wanted particularly to say 'yes it has gone, but it's not just an empty duck pond. There are lots of signs of life all around there now'."

The serendipity of geography means that the final scene, when the ship moves away from the quay, juxtaposes the scenes from Bristol's past against the backdrop of the Lloyds TSB headquarters and the @Bristol edu-leisure centre, the perfect embodiments of Bristol's future. Factors like that backdrop highlight the challenges involved in moving a production out of the safe controlled environment of a theatre into the real world – even if one disregards the tremendous amount of hardware to be maintained and manoeuvred on cue. Actors may be warned not to work with children or animals, but rarely, if ever, has anyone had the audacity to contemplate choreographing a 180ft cargo vessel into a theatrical production.

Smith and Machin agree that the shift to the docks has resulted in a substantial re-engineering of the piece. According to Smith: "We've had to make compromises now we find ourselves in this spectacular space. What we've done is allowed the theatricality to spread out and, inevitably, allowed it to get blended with reality." However, Machin does not believe that those compromises are necessarily detrimental to the power of the play. "In some ways its more theatrical, more epic, more spectacular than it ever could be in a theatre space. What we've taken out are the theatrical conventions and devices. I don't think that they could work in a very real situation. You're asking the audience to believe that these men are using this actual crane or driving this actual steam train, and then step into some other strange theatrical reality."

This need to produce a more reality-based show has also brought them much closer to the hazy dividing line between theatre and historical re-enactment.

Both men believe that Up the Feeder is far more than just a staging of living history. "We had the great piece of luck of having done the show on the stage first. In other words, it had to be invented and created theatrically then, and in essence that's still the guts of the show," according to Smith. Machin agrees: "It's much more character-led, there are personal journeys through the play, so that it's not a series of snapshots or images, which might make it more of a documentary, it is a drama."

Yet the pounding mechanical presence of reality will, unavoidably, interrupt the drama from time to time, if only to prevent the actors from being upstaged. Machin admits that some of the original material had to be carved away simply to create the space to play with what he calls "the toys" – the trains, lorries, crane and ship: "With the best will in the world, even if an actor is delivering the most wonderful story about growing up in Hotwells, if there's a steam train going past behind him, nobody's going to be interested in Hotwells."

It is likely that, for all their hopes of boosting Bristol's civic pride, Machin and Smith's greatest gift to the people of Bristol will be an enduring memory of the scene of which production manager Derek Simpson – the man responsible for the practicalities on the night – is already dreaming: "The curtains go back, and there's the ship sitting in the harbour ready to do her turn. Fantastic."


Up the Feeder, Down the 'Mouth and Back Again will be performed at Princes Wharf, Bristol from 28 June to 8 July. Box office (0117) 987 7877