Down to London for casting. The initial sift for the cast of TheTide Jetty was done by Director Scott Huran and Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles a week or so ago. I’ve now been invited to Toynbee Studios in London to watch the recalls. As the writer I have no special authority in this process. Ivan and Scott will be interested in my take on who does what, but my voice is just one more in the mix. For me this is the start of the process of handing the play over to the production team. Theatre is a collaborative activity and its time for others to start bringing their expertise to bear. Waiting in the wings is a team of set and costume designers, composers, sound designers, musicians, set builders all preparing their own input for the show The Tide Jetty will become.
During the course of a long afternoon a selection of Tuckys, Mortons, Annies, Nudds and Elizas are all put through their paces in extracts from key scenes. For the actors this is tough. At their initial audition they were on their own. This time they are working in small groups. Scripts are handed out, parts assigned, and Scott leads them through each extract in turn – an initial cold sight-read sitting in a circle, followed by standing the scene on its feet. The actors are given minimal direction and the freedom to move around as they improvise the scene. For me it’s the first time I’ve seen the whites of their eyes.
The atmosphere is friendly and co-operative but everyone knows the actors’ livelihood for the next five months depends on the outcome of this session. It’s not just the prospect of earning a crust that is on the line. The lucky ones will join a closely knit team in an intense, exhausting, exhilarating collaboration that will see them criss-cross the county in a van laden with props, welcomed and applauded (we hope) in a different venue every night. The rest return to pulling pints and the day to day hustle that is an inevitable part of an actor’s life.
It’s exciting to see scenes start to come to life – a glimpse into the way things might work. I find myself moved unexpectedly by one of our Eliza’s confrontation with her daughter. Then delighted as a Tucky nails the earthy nous of a marshman. At this point we’re not necessarily looking for the best actors. The challenge for the casting team is to judge how these different personalities work in combination. It’s not a soloist we’re looking for but the full quartet.
As yet, I don’t know the outcome. Even when decisions are made there are agents to be contacted, availability to be checked, the outcome of auditions with other companies to be balanced. Does the actor’s agent recommend the security of a four/five month tour in the regions or does he suggest his client hold out for the possibility of some lucrative telly work? It’s all up for grabs. But somehow from somewhere within this group of talented individuals the final cast of The Tide Jetty will emerge.
Grey and damp on Breydon this morning. A low mist turned to steady rain as I headed out along the south wall. I should probably have stayed at home. Earlier – in the warm and dry – I’d been watching seals from the study window. Yesterday it was a small group of Gannets diving like missiles off the Outer Harbour. But not today. Today it was walking and weather.
There was little bird life to be seen from the boardwalk. In the shadow of the Roman wall I looked out across the reedbeds to Haddiscoe Island hoping for bearded tits. (Not this time.) There were godwits and peewits on the exposed mud, a few wood pigeons in the air and thrushes in among the hawthorn berries. But pretty soon my glasses were rained on and the scope and binoculars too – so my already limited ID skills were quickly exhausted. But it was still perversely pleasurable walking.
Diggers had been at work clearing the dykes behind the wall, the spoil piled neatly on the grazing marsh. New fencing too.
I walked as far as the Tide Jetty, the remains just visible above the water in the mist and rain. Rehearsals start in February. Meeting with composer Chris Warner in a week or so. We need to find a way of bottling some of this Breydon atmosphere.
Writing can be a solitary business. So when the opportunity for an outing cropped up, the chance to abandon the desk with a clear conscience proved impossible to resist.
From our earliest discussions about The Tide Jetty it was obvious sound would play a major role in creating the world of Breydon. The nature of small scale touring means that our set will inevitably be minimalist. Basically, everything has to fit in a van. So a full scale mock up of the jetty and the houseboat alongside went the same way as the community choir we’d used in Breydon Crowther. Instead of relying on bulky scenery we would supplement our emblematic set with an immersive soundscape of the watery world of the marshes.
The Broads Authority offered to help out so bright an early at 9am composer Chris Warner joined me at Goodchilds Marine at Burgh Castle where we were met by Howard and John, two of the Breydon rangers and ushered onto the Spirit of Breydon – their custom launch, decked out in military grey. Initially the plan was to creep into a quiet corner of the Broads to do some location recording but no sooner were we on board than an emergency call came over the radio and moments later we were barrelling down the length of Breydon with blue lights flashing and the wake piling up behind us.
We arrived to find a mud wherry had been cut free of its moorings in Yarmouth and drifted down on the tide colliding with boats and jetties along the way. By the time we got there the wherry had been recovered and it was left to Howard and John to secure a stranded cruiser and take photographic evidence of what damage they could find. Then off we went a second time and at last Chris could break out the recording gear.
For a while we hung off the end of the turntide jetty at the confluence of the Yare and the Waveney. Once the engine was switched off silence descended broken only by the gentle lapping of waves against the piling and the occasional distant cry of an oystercatcher. While we sat quietly on deck Chris deployed the delightfully named Wombat and set to work. Once he was happy we headed further into the Yare. On our right a view opened up across the Halvergate Marshes under a huge Broadland sky. On our left was The Island – an area of roadless unspoilt marsh isolated from the mainland by the Yare, the Waveney and the New Cut.
Haddiscoe Island is another world – largely inaccessible except by a gated track close to St Olaves. The place belongs to the wildlife. We moored by a crumbling staithe close to the remains of Hewitt’s Mill. As a result of flood defence work the mill stands with its feet almost in the water in its own small lagoon. We were met by swans, a hobby, muntjack deer and some nesting corvids – all of which seemed largely unfazed by the arrival of the creative team in shorts.
As writer on location I was – as usual – largely redundant, My main task was to wander round looking thoughtful while Chris did the hard work. I was soaking up the atmosphere while Chris had the much more difficult task of trying to record it.
As for the results, Chris is working on them. It shouldn’t be long before I have a watery wild-track to play at the desk to help with the writing.
There are two tide jetties on Breydon Water. The first, built in the 1830s, stands at the entrance to The Narrows on the North Wall. It was built to deflect the outgoing tide into the main channel in the hope that the scouring action of the water would help keep the channel clear. You can see what it looked like in Frederick Sandys painting Breydon Water, Norfolk. Originally two lines of posts with timber sheeters holding a loose fill of stones, today the structure is a ruin, only visible as a line of rotting posts at low tide. The jetty is knows locally as the Dickey Works, a name which seems to stem from the original contractor who used a donkey-driven engine to drive the piles.
The second is the turntide jetty at the mouth of the river Yare. This is a more substantial structure and has recently been rebuilt by the Broads Authority. The original – built in the 1860s – had fallen into disrepair and become a navigational hazard.
These two jetties lie at the heart of a new play commissioned by Eastern Angles as part of the Broads Authority’s Water, Mills and Marshes project. This play is a development of the Breydon Crowther musical which opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in 2016. (The link will take you to a copy of the original script.) This featured a cast of 5 professional actors and a 15 strong community choir. The new show will be touring to 50 venues in East Anglia so the logistics – not to mention the cost – have inevitable ruled out the choir. The challenge is to tell a convincing story of life on a Broadland Estuary with forces that can fit in the Eastern Angles van. The Tide Jetty will inhabit the same landscape as Breydon Crowther and will once again be a collaboration with composer Chris Warner.
The writing is under way. Watch this space for updates on progress.