Theatre: Fish, flesh and good red herring

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The Independent Culture
THE RIOT

ROYAL NATIONAL THEATRE

LONDON

WHEN YOU consider the phenomenon of fin de siecle brooding, you tend to think of the hock- and seltzer-drinking classes, of Wilde, Beardsley and interestingly soiled bedlinen in the Savoy. You don't automatically think of angry Cornish fishermen. Nick Darke's new play The Riot puts an exuberant bomb under such metropolitan parochialism. The piece is set in Newlyn in 1896, and everyone is terribly conscious of being on the brink of a new century.

"We got the nineteen undreds comin up," declares Thomas Bolitho, merchant, magistrate, mine-owner and mayor. "Do you want the nineteen undreds to pass ya by and dock in Plymouth?" His question is a classic case of the voice of self-interest disguised in the accents of paternalist solicitude.

The Riot dramatises a real-life dispute. The mackerel fishermen of Newlyn, all god-fearing Methodists, objected to the way their east-coast rivals were being paid to work on the Sabbath and to land fish, with the result that the prices were lowered for the rest of the week. The aggro (which included the tipping of 100,000 mackerel into the harbour) escalated and turned into a deadly battle between rival towns. The army had to be called in.

In Mike Shepherd's vibrant production, the piece is performed by Cornwall's crack Kneehigh Company whose brand of physicalised, bracingly irreverent ensemble work was last seen in London when they brought Darke's King of Prussia to the Donmar Warehouse's 1996 "Four Corners" season. Now this highly skilled outfit, which specialises in site-specific performances on cliff-tops and in quarries, has linked up with the National to push home the point that, Miro remarked, "To be truly universal, you must be truly local".

A dark-edged agit-prop romp which replays these grim events as buoyant bloody farce, The Riot is very much to my taste. So it feels a bit ungrateful to confess that I kept wishing that, instead of importing the show into the Cottesloe, the National had organised a fleet of buses to take London punters down to see it outside in situ in Penzance.

Still, this is very much the next best thing. With Brechtian Methodist hymns at the harmonium infiltrated by tribal drumming and assegai-rattling, it's a play in which the events in Cornwall are shadowed by parallel unrest in colonial Africa, to which many local miners were forced to emigrate because of pit closures. Not that there's any shortage of knockabout culture- clash on the home front. Darke shows how, when the female stonebreakers were put out of work, they sought employment as domestics in the homes of the very toffs who had dispossessed them. And pipe-smoking profanity was not the first thing the nobs were looking for in a maid.

With an elderly mother played as a bombazined drag act, mock-deaths staged with the aid of tomato chutney and an eleventh-hour reprieve for capitalism as it stands with a noose round its neck on the gallows, The Riot could certainly be said to subscribe to the cock-up theory of history. I think it would be a lovely gesture if the National were to invite The Lord's Day Observance Society to a special Sunday performance.

Booking to 10 April (0171-452 3000)

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