Theatre review: Hull & High Water

Our theatre reviewer, Hannah Hobson, shares her thoughts on Hull & High Water at Hull Truck Theatre.

For the first time since theatres re-opened, I am reviewing Hull Truck’s most recent production from my own home. As Hull & High Water happens live a few miles away, I am watching it in my living room having had to self-isolate in waiting for my housemate’s covid test.

This is the brave new world we are living in; I wonder whether this will be a change that theatre holds on to even when they can open at full capacity. I am torn as to if this would be a good thing or not. The novelty of having the show in my living room is great and it makes the work so much more accessible than it would be usually. I also love that it gives the show a wider reach, not least because I have been shouting about Hull’s theatre output for years and now, I can finally share it with my friends around the country. Despite this, I cannot deny that theatre in person is better, and I cannot help but feel I missed out a tiny bit by watching it on a screen.

Hull & High Water is a difficult play to summarise. To pare it down to simply the story of a man escaping from his care home would be reductive. Janet Plater’s latest play is more of a potted biography of one man’s life. All these definitions fail to summarise the true scope of what Plater has done here. In a small space of time, she gives a full impression of Frank’s whole life confined within the runtime of the play. Plater is an expert of managing timelines. I will admit to occasionally losing my place in the story and getting a bit tired of Frank’s ever-repeating jokes. However, the pay-off of these story elements is worth the wait.

John Middleton’s performance as Frank is stunning. He becomes a vessel for the multiplicity of memory, flickering through time, character and location fluently. It is the performance of a master storyteller. The production puts into actuality the sense that we, as people, become conduits of the people we have lost. He embodies Frank’s memories, and it is a transformative performance to watch.

The whole machine of the play is so well controlled. Tom Saunders’ direction does the difficult job of making a one-person show as dynamic as a stage full of people. Aided by the design elements, he managed to construct a real sense of place and time even as Frank drifts through a soup of memory. The staging does everything possible to aid the play and Middleton’s performance. Saunders’ vision of the play is beautiful.

While I am usually fonder of physical sets, the simple projection work here aids the storytelling beautifully. I wonder if Oliver Cooper’s video designs could have been more ambitious but ultimately, they gave a clear indication of place. Similarly, the design elements – Oliver Brown’s set and Sian Thomas’ costume – were extensions of the story being told, from the jumble of furniture that backed Frank’s world, to the red waistcoat which will be my lasting image of the play. I felt I did not get the best of the lighting or sound design via the livestream, although Jess Addinall’s lighting did the excellent job of accenting the ever-changing locations and Mat Clowes’ sound design provided narrative information essential to the storytelling.

Across the board, Hull & High Water is an incredibly strong show. It is a love letter to Hull and the sense of community that feeds our city. In the current climate, its theme of how people support one another even in the worst of circumstances is much felt. I was truly touched by its message that, ultimately, people care and will pull you back onto your feet when you need it most.

[Hannah Hobson – Theatre reviewer]