HULL Truck Theatre’s second half of their 50th anniversary season unleashes Ladies Unleashed, the third instalment of Amanda Whittington’s trilogy.
In the wake of Hull Truck hits Ladies Day – the one set at York Racecourse to coincide with Royal Ascot switching to Knavesmire in 2005 – and Ladies Down Under two years later, now the Nottingham playwright celebrates friendship, growing older and living for today.
Directed by artistic director Mark Babych, Ladies Unleashed reunites four friends, Hull fish factory workers Jan, Pearl, Linda and Shelley in 2022 on the peaceful, magical retreat of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in a story of secrets and mysteries, reunions and an imminent wedding, twists and surprises.
“Seventeen years! It’s absolutely frightening! I was checking when I started, thinking it must be ten years ago, but in fact it was 2005, and the world has changed so much since then,” says Amanda.
“I can’t believe it’s so long since we first went to Ladies Day with the fish factory foursome, and to Australia in Ladies Down Under a few years later. Creating these stories for Hull Truck was a magical time and the audience response was unforgettable.
“Since then, the two Ladies plays have been a firm favourite on the amateur circuit across the UK. Barely a month goes by without a production somewhere in the country, keeping the play alive since its original production. It’s such a gift as a writer to know what affection your characters are held in.”
Pearl (Fenella Norman), Jan (Allison Saxton) and Linda (Sara Beharrell) have not seen Shelley (Hull-born Gemma Oaten) for years, but when she suddenly turns up, Linda’s plans for a weekend of quiet contemplation (“not a hen party,” she says) take a different turn as tensions rise with the tide.
“I’ve always set the plays in the present day, so now Pearl is in her early 70s; Jan, mid-60s; Linda and Shelley around 40,” says Amanda.
“A whole generation has gone by, and I was quite reluctant to get back on the bike, after doing Ladies Day as a one-off, but then I did another one two years later, and so the characters are still very much alive in village halls and community centres.
“I thought of all the people who’ve been in Ladies Day or seen it, and there were discussions with Nick Hern Books, the publishers, who’ve been really instrumental in keeping the Ladies alive all these years.
“Then I started talking to artistic director Mark Babych about new ideas for the 50th anniversary, and a new Ladies play was floated. I was curious to think about where they were a generation later, but presenting it as a stand-alone play, looking at getting older and the benefits and challenges of doing that, when you don’t normally do that with characters from earlier plays.”
The third instalment was commissioned pre-pandemic. “There was a first draft, then the lockdowns, and when I came back to it, there’d been more changes,” says Amanda.
“I write about where we are, where we’ve been, so it’s partly a play about time. Writing dialogue for those characters again, I found it was like they’d never been away. They were just back in the room.
“It felt instantly right, and then it was about putting it in a dramatic framework that felt contemporary.”
After a day at the York Races in Ladies Day and a trip to Australia in Ladies Down Under, Amanda now sends Pearl Jan, Linda and Shelley to Lindisfarne and lets the island work its spell on them, like in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Tim Firth’s Neville’s Island.
“That was exactly the thought behind it, to get them to a place they can’t get off, a place that had so much history and texture, and, like Hull, had a great fishing industry, giving it that connection with the past.”
Here was the cue for two new additions to the Whittington ranks of women, young fish workers Mabel (played by Martha Godber) and Daisy (Nell Baker), whose friendship from Lindisfarne’s past stirs anew as the island itself becomes restless, the sky darkens, the air chills, and the winds of change blow skeletons from closets. Whereupon past, present and future collide.
“I thought, what happens if the past comes alive and the young women they might have been awaken, working on the island a century earlier?” says Amanda. “This was the chance to bring magic realism into the play, and that’s been a lovely thing to open up.”
Women’s stories are at the heart of Amanda’s plays. “That’s very much what I’m about as a writer. It felt very natural for me to do that, and right from the beginning of my career that’s the voice I’ve always spoken in. Even now it’s still not common but it’s a characteristic of my work,” she says.
“John Godber’s plays, Arthur Miller’s plays, are never talked about as ‘male plays’, but women’s plays stand out because there just aren’t as many. Ladies Unleashed is about a female world, and as the women of Holy Island’s past come alive, it shows how women’s lives have changed so radically and yet how some things have still not changed.
“Thankfully, there are lots of untold stories from history about women that are being told now, but they’re not stories just for women; they’re stories for everyone.”
Ladies Unleashed plays out in the age of #MeToo and a rising focus on women’s rights. “It’s released something in the last few years that’s not about men versus women, or oppressing women, particularly as there are damaged men as well,” says Amanda. “That’s the spirit of my work, with women giving their perspective on a century of change, and in 2022 it’s really welcomed by audiences.”
What are the ladies unleashing, Amanda? “What holds them together is that core of friendship, and the key to that is their work as fish factory workers, but they all have something they need to be released from, barriers to break through, and part of that comes down to how that differs in the different generations and how that’s changed,” she says.
Hull Truck Theatre in Ladies Unleashed, September 29 to October 22. Last performance, 7.30pm. Box office: 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk.