An Illuminating Yarn, Andy Patterson, Button Box Theatre Company, Cuts, Edinburgh Fringe, Hannah Walker, Jane Pickthall, Jill Dellow, Matt Harden, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, The Spaces on the Mile, Theatre Review, Unemployment
We are at the end of the pier, in the Northern seaside resort of Saltburn-by-the-Sea. Button Box Theatre’s “An Illuminating Yarn” is not a big play, with its three actors popping in and out of a single forty-minute act, but there are enough twists in the story to create the illusion of a long walk down this short pier. The arriving audience is met by the playwright Jane Pickthall, who is collecting the tickets at the door, and she looks like an immensely jolly lady. Her play turns out to be tremendous fun.
“An Illuminating Yarn” is currently showing at the Spaces on the Mile. At first the play seems to replicate a scenario which is wearily familiar from England’s ailing film industry: the plucky working class characters who respond to the depletion of their deindustrialised Northern town by cultivating their more creative or liberated instincts. In The Full Monty, the steel mill had closed and the workmen became strippers; in Billy Elliot, the coal-pit was in jeopardy and the hero became a ballet dancer. In “An Illuminating Yarn,” the stricken town, a satellite of Middlesbrough, is going through another, deeper stage of decline with the recent Cuts. Nina (Jill Dellow) has lost her job at the local library and the play’s gormless Police Community Support Officer (Matt Harden) has presumably replaced a real, properly trained policeman. The appearance of a “yarn bomber,” who leaves knitted figures on the Saltburn pier, promises to bring a spark of life back to this community.
Saltburn is a real place and the yarn bomber is a real yarn bomber, who periodically thrills the local media and Twitter with their anonymous offerings. “An Illuminating Yarn” actually perpetrates a libel upon the Saltburn knitter, since the play in the end theorises that they must be mentally deranged. No doubt the bomber is currently knitting a model of Jane Pickthall and preparing to stick pins into it.
It is hard to take these characters seriously when their tragedy is encircled by a knitted Dalek and a knitted Jedward. I found a lot of the supposed moral anguish of this play to be merely a backdrop against which it is happy to be daft. The bomber is not evil or distressed so much as plain daft. Other reviewers (see here and here) have identified the relaxed nature of the play as being a weakness of the writing. Yet if it is, the actors still manage to make the show, if not funny, then at least fun. Hannah Walker seems to fix down the status of the play, in portraying the gangly Claire, who wears her cheerfulness as a default setting. For her, all problems in life can be overcome with “a shag and a bottle of chardonnay.” This may be the only idea that Pickthall’s play has, if one discounts the explosives, but it is not a bad or an ignoble idea.