Off the back of a truck

For its fiftieth anniversary Hull’s famous theatre company is returning to its radical beginning, when players squatted near the docks and used unusual forms of transport to travel to performances

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Back in 1971, with radical stage collectives springing up across the country, actor-director Mike Bradwell was inspired to place an advert in leading listings magazine Time Out: “Half-formed theatre company seeks other half.” The end result was Hull Truck, a gathering of creatively-inclined young folks living in a dingy East Yorkshire squat by the docks, using a nearby phone box for their business dealings and travelling to their performing engagements in, well, a truck.

The squat’s address was 71 Coltman St, which has provided the inspiration and title for Hull Truck’s latest production. Now long since rehoused in a plush, purpose-built venue, the company is looking back to its roots to mark its 50th anniversary.

Written by Richard Bean, 71 Coltman St is a new comedy-drama directed by the theatre’s artistic director Mark Babych. He says: “As a company we love to creatively respond to moments in time. Having a brilliant playwright capture a significant event in our history and translate it into a good night in the theatre seemed to me to be the perfect way to celebrate how we began.”

Hull-born playwright Bean, whose credits include Great Britain, The Hypocrite and the hit Goldoni adaptation One Man, Two Guvnors, has a long history with the company. When the cast of his 2003 Royal Court play Under the Whaleback featured Alan Williams, an erstwhile pioneering member of Hull Truck, the two got talking. “Alan was always sharing stories about Coltman Street during the early seventies,” Babych says. “When Richard and I were discussing how to mark the 50th anniversary, I asked if had he any ideas and this one naturally popped up. It was a meeting of minds on the same thing, really.”

the original Hull Truck company in 1971
Above: the original Hull Truck company in 1971. Main image: Laurie Jamieson, Lauryn Redding and Adrian Hood in rehearsals for 71 Coltman St.

The play depicts the humble, ambitious origins of the company as the fledgling troupe find their feet. Nevertheless, Babych insists it isn’t a documentary. “It’s a sort of origin story where Richard has borrowed from many different eras of the Mike Bradwell time and based some of the characters on amalgams of people who were around. Mike’s read the play and he likes it. He says not all of it’s true, but that it very much captures the spirit of what they were trying to achieve and how they achieved it.”

It’s not a musical either, but the play does include songs harking back to those used in the bygone days – in some cases, directly. “It was one of their rehearsal methodologies,” Babych explains. “Actors would write songs for the characters they were inventing, from a song about a broken fan heater in a flat – which is one of the original Hull Truck songs that features in this show – to songs where characters explored their anxieties about the global green crisis.”

According to Babych, 71 Coltman St is “pretty raucous”.

“I think it’s riotous. There’s some great music in it and it’s very funny – a really energetic, entertaining night out. But it’s also got something to say about the state of theatre when Mike started the company, why he started it, what drove him. Some of those things, I think, remain true to this day. This still remains a theatre that is interested in ordinary people going about their everyday lives, in ways that our audiences can relate to.”

71 Coltman St runs 17 February-12 March at Hull Truck Theatre 

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