Get Up and Tie Your Fingers tells the story of a disaster at sea, through the women in a small fishing community. They’re living a life which remained essentially unchanged from the 1800s through to the 1950s, when overfishing ended a way of life.
The play focuses on three characters, mother Jean and her daughter Molly, and close family friend (and Molly’s future mother-in-law) Janet. While Jean is weighted by her past, Molly wants a different life, and is inspired by Janet’s stories of work as a Herring Lass, travelling from Scotland down to Margate as she followed the fishing fleet, gutting and packing the fish. While fishermen are always there, they’re offstage, a presence but never part of the performance which has an all-female cast.
But the fishing disaster which finally claims the lives of these men – sons, husbands, and brothers – is the point at which the three women really come together, and through their loss realise that life has to be lived now. The play ends at the very start of their journey together.
Jean is played perfectly by Barbara Marten, who holds the stiffness of her upbringing and the fear of loss in every firm, straight inch of her Presbyterian performance. Sian Mannifield’s Janet is a counterweight to this; a joyous, singsong performance, as a woman who’s lived and enjoyed life along the way, but is nearly brought down by the loss of her sons. Her telling of their deaths, witnessed from the harbour arm, is truly moving.
And Molly, who balances both past and future so is at the centre of the whole play, is played by Samantha Foley. She has a dark, heavy, 19th century beauty which you’ll find in old photos. Her austerity of gesture, and her tough, physical grace make Molly both Victorian and very contemporary.
The three leads are supported by Steffi Sweeney and Erin Connor, leading a chorus of fifteen local women. This is a brave way to perform; the choir change throughout the tour, different in each town. For Margate, The Landmark Show Choir have had to learn their movement across, through and around the set in about seven hours. They’re a constant presence, singing a tricky score but also, often just standing still or sitting in ones or twos and watching over the performance like a Greek chorus.
Get Up and Tie Your Fingers is a stylish piece of contemporary theatre, blending a sparse and atmospheric choral score by Karen Wimhurst, with strong movement and great physical performances. It all takes place on a striking set by Alison Ashton that reflects the claustrophobia of a village, the closeness of a community, the smallness of a family home, and the safety of a harbour.
That’s a life and those are themes that are universal and timeless; and that’s what makes this a great piece of theatre.
Get Up and Tie Your Fingers is at the Theatre Royal, Margate until 19th July.