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The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca review at Guildhall, Hull – ‘poetic promenade performance’

Helen Carter in The Last Testament of Lilian Bilocca at Guildhall, Hull. Photo: Andrew Billington Helen Carter in The Last Testament of Lilian Bilocca at Guildhall, Hull. Photo: Andrew Billington
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A gang of swaggering lads, hair Brylcreemed and suits sharply cut, are making eyes at a group of women, who are languidly smoking. You can smell the wafts of eau de cologne, as the band strikes up and the fights break out.

Maxine Peake’s new play, The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, presents a snapshot of Hessle Road, Hull’s fishing community, in the 1960s.

Based around the life and work of trawler safety campaigner Bilocca, the play manages to be both raw and poetic. This promenade production, set amid the stern statues and stained glass of Hull’s Guildhall, leads the audience through the Edwardian grandeur of the city’s seat of local government. There’s a marked contrast between the boom and bust lives of the trawlermen – dubbed the Three Day Millionaires for their brief spending sprees when back from sea – and the arrogance and glittering wealth of the trawling company owners.

Alongside the key dramatic set pieces – including a prize-giving ceremony at the Silver Cod Ball, the trawler owners’ annual knees-up, in the banqueting hall – Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight’s production makes ingenious use of the whole building. A dimly lit, wood-panelled corridor seems to become the dank hull of a ship, with the crackling sounds of radio frequencies coming from the offices on either side of the audience.

Around the corner, there’s a shocking tableau of suffering – a group of shivering trawlerman, partly stripped of their clothes, stand shivering in an icy-white light.

The show’s mix of blunt reality and humour is encapsulated by Helen Carter’s performance as the formidable Lill. Her direct addresses to the audience – “Some of you’ve made the effort,” she says, flintily appraising our clothes – is joined by her fury at the conditions the workers find themselves under.

It’s impossible not to be drawn in by all this: ultimately the trawlermen’s struggle becomes emblematic of every struggle against the indifferences of those holding the purse strings.

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Maxine Peake’s raw, yet hauntingly poetic look at a struggle for justice