Theatre review: Rembrandt in Hull

Phil Ascough reviews Rembrandt in Hull, a new comedy by Dave Lee for people who know their arts from their elbow.

Photography: Anete Sooda

To those who think Rembrandt in Hull bulldozes through the borders of bawdiness, you have a point. So too those with broader minds, who apply the defence of artistic licence to a deluge of four-letter rants and subject matter which can’t be repeated here.

But ask yourselves how you would react when woken by the postie playing a lute/mandolina/guitar and singing a song of Hull under your window at four in the morning.

The tirade which followed – coming from none other than our Lord Mayor, albeit the one in 1661 – sets the standard from the outset. Not that anybody familiar with the work of Dave Lee should be surprised, but it’s clear from a few of the feedback forms that some were.

Photography: Anete Sooda

Dave, a writer, film-maker and creative (and often crude) thinker and commentator, has never been known to mince his words and this trip back to 17th century Hull gives him the perfect opportunity to cut loose with a lexicon which would make Chubby Brown blush.

Most of the profanities are entirely appropriate, a point probably appreciated by the vast majority of the audiences, but not by anybody who may have mistaken this venue for the Ferens and turned up expecting an authoritative lecture on Rembrandt’s greatest works.

There were times when you got the distinct impression that every expletive-uttering character in the story was based on the real-life Dave Lee, but that’s something which can be addressed as the play is sharpened. This was a script-in-hand production and in such circumstances the emphasis was on trialling the concept. It works, and will doubtless be tweaked to let the actors develop the personality of their characters with the benefit of full sets and costumes.

The story is straightforward enough. There is evidence (or not) to show that the famous Dutch artist spent 1661 living in Hull, invited by poet and MP Andrew Marvell and possibly seeking inspiration for his art from the big East Yorkshire sky, rolling countryside and vast expanse of the Humber. But dig a bit deeper and you find that he spent most of the year in Ye Olde Black Boy pub, drinking and womanising. Or not.

Dave draws some modern day parallels with plagues, Brexit and vote rigging, and the whole thing is brought to life by often hilarious ad libs, asides and dodgy Dutch accents.

Photography: Anete Sooda

There is definitely an appetite for more of Rembrandt in Hull and it is to be hoped Dave can secure more funding from his backers for this work – the Arts Council, Hull City Council and others – to put together a more polished production. It’s perfect for Hull Truck, and one member of the Saturday night audience was not wrong in suggesting the Edinburgh Fringe would be ideal.

It’s easy to see why. Rembrandt in Hull delivers because Dave Lee has a writing style which complements his knack of coming up with quirky ideas. He also knows his city inside out and isn’t afraid to poke gentle fun at its shortcomings and the misconceptions of others. When the Lord Mayor is said to harbour ambitions to turn Hull into one huge toilet, 17th century social context confirms that’s actually a much-needed enhancement.

It’s a play that can travel, but not everywhere. Rembrandt in Barnsley would work. Also Rembrandt in Glasgow and Rembrandt: The Geordie Years. But Rembrandt in Cambridge? Lacks the culture clash.

Where it goes from here remains to be seen but with such social media comments as “an absolute bawdy hoot”, “a romping swear fest”, “effervescent fun from start to finish” and “just the filthy, funny romp I hoped it would be”, it’s clear Rembrandt in Hull deserves to play to a wider audience.

None of which is to decry the venue for this production – a bawdy baptism for the Wrecking Ballroom, upstairs at Wrecking Ball Music and Books. The place which opened last year has now added a cosy and discreet café plus the city’s newest stage. It’s hard to assess its capacity in these Covid times but there is no doubt about its potential at the heart of a city which is crying out for another explosion of indigenous culture.

[Phil Ascough – Ascough Associates]