Jamie Brown as Jack Ford at the Customs House, South Shields

When the Boat Comes In: The Hungry Years by Peter Mitchell, is the second in a projected trilogy based on the 1970’s BBC TV series. Premiering at the Customs House, South Shields until September 28th, the play introduces a new generation to the vivid characters and situations created by James Mitchell.

Despite the setting in a depressed 1920’s Tyneside, we regard the character of Jack Ford as one of the few true rivals to John Wilder ; a calculating pragmatist who takes the world on his own terms and offers reward to those who follow him. Jamie Brown succeeds in winning over the audience without betraying the ambiguity of the character. His interpretation is distinctly different from the TV original (to coin a phrase, it’s as if someone said, “Get me a young George Costigan”) but still has the ring of truth.

Alice Stokoe as Jessie Seaton and Jamie Brown as Jack Ford

The play takes aspects of the TV episodes, Paddy Boyle’s Discharge, King For A Day, and Kind Hearted Rat With A Lifebelt but Peter Mitchell and director Katy Weir have tightened the strands into a fully theatrical experience. The Jack Ford of the play is much more on edge – whether through conscience or the after-effects of trench warfare – leading to a nightmarish pre-interval explosion. The action takes place against an expressionistic, sliding set that opens in darkness with clanging, grinding noises (shipbuilding or coal hoists?) before the cast gradually appear holding candlelights and singing ‘The Internationale’ as Jack Ford sorts through the treasures in his kitbox, finally pulling out and spinning the chambers of his service revolver.

The rapid scene changes are turned into an event by having the actors shift the scenery in choreographed moves, sometimes accompanied by contemporary songs. This probably sounds more twee than it actually is . The overall effect keeps the mood of the show consistent and also allows for some shock effects such as (what we’ve presumed to be) the walls of a house to slide apart to reveal Tom Seaton (Matthew Howden) standing beside the coffin of his wife Mary.

Matt Headley (Charlie Richmond), Dolly Ford (Anna Bolton) & Jack Ford (Jamie Brown)

While this is a fresh interpretation, there is also much that remains faithful to the TV show. From the moment Steve Byron yells, “tell that fornicating bastard to go to hell,” it’s clear that he’ll be playing wheelchair-bound Bill Seaton in the irascible manner of James Garbutt. Byron doubles as Ford’s mentor, Sir Horatio Manners (played by Basil Henson in the TV show) nailing the upper-class character’s foxy charm (sometimes with an extremely quick change). Similarly, Charlie Richmond plays Matt Headley, the straight-as-a-die but hero-worshipping sidekick of Ford like a reincarnation of Malcolm Terris, but also plays Lord Calderbeck, prospective victim of a sting by Manners and Ford.

Anna Bolton makes a sympathetic, three-dimensional Dolly Ford, with some humorous body language and pouting when Jessie Seaton comes to call on Jack. It’s Dolly who first alerts Jack to the starving conditions of widow Sarah Balfour (Carrie Downey) and her sons. The plight of the Balfour family, with not enough money coming in to feed the children, is one of those situations which seemed to be part of the dead past in the TV show, and yet now seems frighteningly relevant for the stage show.

Bella Seaton (Janine Birkett) & Jessie Seaton (Alice Stokoe)

The play opens with Jack unemployed due to shipyard layoffs. Sir Horatio Manners offers Jack a chance to make some quick money by posing as a rich businessman at a country house weekend. Later on, union organiser Les Mallow (Adam Donaldson) offers Jack the chance to be his paid assistant if he will use his skills to get Les elected as union secretary.

At the heart of When The Boat Comes In is the tension between Jack’s ruthless self-interest, the intellectual socialism of Jessie and union organiser Mallow, and the practical charity of Bella Seaton. Bella is played with great charm by Janine Birkett (who recently appeared as war correspondent Marie Colvin in the drama-documentary Under the Wire). Throughout the play, Bella tries to do what is right, shouting down her opinionated husband or gently coaxing a shattered Jack Ford away from self-pity. Ironically, Alice Stokoe doubles both the principled Jessie and the extremely unprincipled Lady Jessica Croner.

It’s great to see these characters live again. The story is entertaining, down-to-earth and salted with wry humour (unexpected bits like the union strike vote where brother Poskett (Luke Maddison) suddenly points at the audience shouting, “You, get your hand up!”)

If I had to criticise the play, I’d question why Jack Ford was robbed of his big speech against inequality towards the end. And to see a play about Jack Ford without him trotting out his story about the death of Captain Manners and “Dining at the Saville” seems like Hamlet without “To Be or Not To Be”. But those are minor quibbles – and for a play that has the hair standing on the back of my neck more than once, not really relevant. When the Boat Comes In continues at the Custom House until Saturday 28th September.