The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca review – Maxine Peake’s tribute to Hull’s headscarf revolutionaries

The Guildhall, Hull
Peake’s rich new play, with music by the Unthanks, tells the story of the Hull women who fought the government on fishermen’s safety and won

In 1968, extraordinary storms lashed northern waters. Between 11 January and 4 February, three Hull trawlers sank and al but one of the 59 trawlermen aboard them drowned. Wild weather was one thing, but poor safety standards, including inadequate radio provision, may have contributed to the losses. Trawlermen, ashore only for short periods, had little hope of organising action to improve matters.

The women in the fishing community centred around Hessle Road decided to take action. One stood out – all 17 stone of her: Lily Bilocca (1929-88). She, along with Christine Jensen, Mary Denness, Yvonne Blenkinsop and others, collected 10,000 signatures on a petition demanding improvements, which they delivered in person to Westminster. They got a result: a new Shipping Act met their demands.

There have been two plays about Lillian Bilocca on in Hull this past week. If what interests you is historical fact, the spirit of Hessle Road, what Mrs Bilocca and the other “headscarf revolutionaries” (as they have been dubbed) actually did, how much they achieved, and how Mrs Bilocca suffered afterwards – losing her job and the support of many in the community – then the other one, Lil”, by Val Holmes, would have met your needs.

In The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, writer Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom do something different. They create an impressionistic and dualistic vision of trawler owners and trawlermen; of trawlermen and their wives.

Peake plays off the contrast between the vaulted splendour of the city’s Guildhall and the harshness of trawlerfolk’s lives. The audience is shepherded through reception rooms, council chambers and fog-filled corridors echoing with the sound of the sea – half-open doors leach crackles of radio transmissions interrupted by interference.

The action opens and closes on the trawler-owners’ annual Silver Cod celebration. We watch from the sidelines as a stuffed-shirt ball is swept aside by a trawlerfolk’s pub celebration, ending in a punch-up. In the council chamber, we sit and listen through headphones to the thoughts of the widow who, between strikingly incongruous kitchen sink and table, mimes her grief of her recent loss. As we pass an opening that streams with light, we see it is crammed with men miming the suffering of the drowning.

The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca.
The lost trawlerman in The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca. Photograph: Andrew Billington

We encircle a table on to which climb Chrissie (Laura Elsworthy), Mary (Lena Kaur) and Yvonne (Katherine Pearce) to introduce themselves and the safety changes the women want, read out by Lillian (Helen Carter). The four march from the room chanting: “To the docks!” In the banqueting room, we rejoin the trawler-owners’ cynical-seeming celebration: the women, accusations delivered, are carried off by the trawlermen. Mrs Bilocca is left alone and, as a voiceover makes clear, abandoned. The conclusion is a magical moment created by musicians Adrian McNally and the Unthanks – not to be spoiled by telling.

The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca is at the Guildhall, Hull, until 18 November


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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