Sunday, June 26

‘I wanted to be a nuisance’: the rampant rise of Hull Truck | Theater

I he moved to Hull in 1971 because it was the most unlikely place in the world to found an experimental theater company; furthermore, the rents were cheap and it was unlikely that social security would find us a suitable job. He was 23 years old and believed that theater could change the world. I still do it.

I wanted to do uncompromising, provocative, funny, tough, and sexy plays about people you didn’t see in plays, for people who didn’t go to the theater. I wanted the Hull Truck to be a nuisance.

71 Coltman Street was dark and cold. Downstairs there was a room full of broken furniture and wild cats. We live and rehearse upstairs. Children of the Lost Planet was designed over 12 weeks. It was about a group of young people our age who lived in Hull and tried to fight their way through the minefield of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Always write what you know.

The winter of 1972 was freezing. We only had a small air heater and we rehearsed under a blanket tent. The heater exploded, so we burned the broken chairs downstairs. We bought a flattened Morris van for £ 35 and a boy from the youth theater stole a tax disc from us.

The original Hull Truck Theater Company just outside 71 Coltman Street.  From left to right: Mike Bradwell, Lisa Hicks, Nick Levitt, Dave Greaves, John Lee, Steve Halliwell, Chris Levitt and Mark Allain
The original Hull Truck Theater Company just outside 71 Coltman Street. From left to right: Mike Bradwell, Lisa Hicks, Nick Levitt, Dave Greaves, John Lee, Steve Halliwell, Chris Levitt and Mark Allain

We didn’t have many reservations, possibly because the management office was outside the booth.

When we presented Children of the Lost Planet in York, the local newspaper wondered why we wanted to bring such disgusting people to the stage. On the way to our first show in London, the van broke down and we abandoned it on a pig farm in Gilberdyke. We get hooked on the concert with accessories and costumes.

But we continue. After Children of the Lost Planet came The following weekend, The Knowledge, Oh what !, Bridget’s House, Ooh La La! and still crazy after all these years. We put on countless children’s shows, pub shows and musical cabarets. Our quest to always tell the uncomfortable truth often got us into trouble. Ironically, The Knowledge ban in Manchester turned out to be our biggest opportunity. The theater made an exception to a rude line uttered by ex-motorcyclist drug dealer Dooley. On the day the show ran, there was rave reviews in The Guardian, which published an article the next day about the ridiculous ban. We loaded the van and headed straight to the Bush Theater in London, where we gave an impromptu presentation. Word had spread and we received a standing ovation. The theater booked us immediately for a month in November. The race was sold.

After that, grants, salaries, a suitable truck, rave reviews, and a phone followed.

We toured the entire country getting praise and abuse in equal measure. One particular scene from Bridget’s House in 1976 caused quite a stir. Bridget (Rachel Bell) and Mo (Cass Patton) are discussing their sex lives. At one point, Bridget observes that most men wouldn’t know what a clit is if it jumped up and bit them on the leg.

Cass Patton and Rachel Bell
Causing a ruckus … Cass Patton and Rachel Bell

One night in Gainsborough, a couple in the audience broke up during the scene. He stormed out and into the night. We had to take her home in the truck. That same year we were invited to present Bridget’s House at the new National Theater.

One of the few people who saw those early works was a very young Richard Bean. When he told me he was going to write 71 Coltman Street, a dramatized Hull Truck story, he said he would hate it. I do not. Richard has written a fantastic show. Of course, not a word of that is true, but he has captured the spirit of what he believes was the spirit of Hull Truck. That’s not an easy thing to do when most theaters seem to be caving in to neo-Puritan censorship and politically fabricated culture wars.

The real and proper theater bargain is when a group of human beings on stage meet with a group of human beings in the audience to fearlessly celebrate their human being. Pass it on.

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