The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca review – Maxine Peake salutes Hull's wonder women

Guildhall, Hull
Peake reels us in with this winning story about the women who fought for fishermen’s rights, featuring folksy music by the Unthanks

‘Good to see you. You’re a rum lot,” says Lillian Bilocca as we walk up the stairs of Hull’s Guildhall, past all the silverware speaking of wealth and advantage, and past endless pictures of men in all their finery, brandy glasses in hand, gazing down from the walls. Row after ruddy row of them.

Bilocca (played by Helen Carter) was the woman who, in 1968, after two trawler disasters, took on the trawler owners, petitioning parliament to enact safety legislation to protect the husbands, fathers and sons who went off to sea for three weeks at a time, often in unseaworthy vessels, only returning home for three-day periods. She was successful, but she was also vilified by some for speaking out. Women weren’t supposed to have a voice – but this new promenade show makes them heard.

Written by Maxine Peake and directed by her regular collaborator Sarah Frankcom, the show takes us back to 1968: the desiccated trawler owners and their smartly embalmed wives shuffle around the dancefloor at the Silver Cod ball. In the local pub, the three-day millionaires, as they were known, preen like peacocks and move as if it’s the last dance of their lives: arms, legs – and eventually fists – flying.

Exhilarating … Maxine Peake’s promenade show The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca.
Exhilarating … Maxine Peake’s promenade show The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca. Photograph: Andrew Billington

The production is suffused in music, from Adrian McNally and the Unthanks’ folksy tunes with a dash of 1960s pop to the crooning of Katherine Pearce’s Yvonne, whose every note speaks of loss. What’s most interesting is the way the work reclaims the Guildhall, an occupation by women of a traditionally male space.

The council chamber becomes a domestic kitchen, where a mother and child wait just as the trawlermen’s wives endlessly waited. The corridors of power are haunted by women in headscarves. The Silver Cod dinner – in which we are cast as the guests – is invaded by the women, who stand their ground in the face of the men’s sometimes violent opposition.

The nature of the evening and the logistics of moving large numbers of people around can make it seem scrappy at times. There are some issues with the acoustics of the building, and some of the speeches are too long and a tad self-consciously poetic. But Last Testament is exhilarating and moving, a show made for and with the people of Hull (there’s a large community cast). It speaks truth to power and celebrates not just Bilocca but all the women who refuse to be shut up – then and now.

• At the Guildhall, Hull, until 18 November. Box office: 01482 323638.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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