Page 16 of the script of Up the Feeder, Down the 'Mouth and Back Again contains a simple stage direction: "The doors are opened, to reveal a ship docking." This is surely one of theatre's folies de grandeur, with its implied assumption that a 1,000-ton cargo vessel can be as controllable as a papier mâché prop.
But on the night, when the doors of the quayside shed which houses the audience roll back, there she is on the silent waters of Bristol docks: a genuine working steamer, entering on cue with the solid reliability of a theatrical Dame hitting her mark for the 50th time. It is a breathtaking moment, leaving the awestruck audience applauding the hubristic dream made reality. If nothing else, Up the Feeder is a work of logistical genius, and production manager Derek Simpson should take the biggest bow.
The ship is not the only mechanical artefact on show. ACH Smith's distillation of the legends and anecdotes of Bristol's docks is staged on the quayside where 30 years ago the action it describes was day-to-day life. Working cranes, lorries, forklifts and a steam train which whooshes across the acting area give a strong feel of the reality underlying the tales told in the play. Crates are swung, timber is carried, and those of us accustomed to today's roboticised container-processing plants get a chance to see how cargoes used to be man-handled in the glory days of Bristol's port.
Yet despite the excitement, verisimilitude and open-mouth-ed wonder which all this "reality theatre" provides, it is ultimately inessential to the core of the production. While the extras swarm up and down the ship in an unloading routine which is Busby Berkeley-esque in its smooth symmetrical fluidity, the real story is being told in the foreground.
Smith has refined the reminiscences of Bristol dockers and mariners into a collage of oral history which conjures up high seas and high jinx with no real need for props or technical tours de force. For example, the sailor Magicote's account of running away to sea at 13, circling the globe on a Norwegian whaling ship and celebrating his 15th birthday in Kobe, Japan can't be illustrated with cranes or crates. It relies on the craft of the storyteller, the playwright and the actor: painting pictures with words.
It is those intangible images which constitute most of the play's truly magical moments, and which ensure that this production is more than just historical re-enactment. Neverthe- less, for all the mental pictures which the audience may take away with them, the one they will tell their grandchildren is the day they saw an ocean-going steamer make its entrance in a play.
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