All Hands! The Nornen Project at Burnham-on-Sea

WHEN the tide goes out at Berrow Beach on the North Somerset coast (and remember that the tidal range of the Severn Estuary is the second larges in the world), you can see the timbers of a boat emerging from the sand. She is the SV Nornen, and she went down on 3rd March 1897 in a storm that remains famous in seafaring history.

Many residents of and visitors to Burnham-on-Sea, just south of Berrow, have seen the wreck, but few know its history. In 2017 Corrinne Curtis, a Burnham resident for many years, had a grand idea. She decided to tell the story as an epic outdoor theatre production, with music and dance and involving not only professional performers but a huge cast of local performers. Then came Covid, but Corrinne was undaunted. The plans progressed and the result is All Hands, performed in the Marine Cove Gardens until 6th August.

The entire hour-long show is signed, so it has three directors – Bryn Holding, Lynn Stewart-Taylor the BSL co-director and Daniel Hawthorne in charge of the community participants. Patsy Browne-Hope is in charge of the hugely atmospheric choreography, and Arran Glass is the composer and main musician, aided and abetted by Kit Massey.

There are five professional performers credited as “devising cast”, ten as “community cast” and the members of the Princess Theatre’s Unroyal Community Choir … and the dog You can’t have a story about a ship without music, and it is a vital part of the whole show and the element that involves everyone, including the odd bark and howl.

Even on a blustery evening the skills and energy of the actors brought the exciting story to mesmerising life. The ship, torn from her safe harbour south of Lundy Island, was blown across the channel towards the Somerset coast, and there seemed no prospect of salvation, but the skipper went into the sea to find help, and was pulled ashore by Berrow residents, who called for the lifeboat. The brave men set out into the dark and stormy waters and rescued all the Nornen crew, including the dog. Local families took them in and gave them food and shelter until the dreadful storm subsided.

All this was re-enacted by the brilliant company, and I have seldom seen a more convincing and frightening storm at sea, played on a simple set of scaffolding, timber and ropes. The actors who devised the show – including well known local performers Lucy Tuck and Kieran Buckeridge, with Stephen Collins, Matty Gurney and Chioma Uma, brought all their skills to bear to create this fascinating story that tells of the selfless heroism of the local community and the unpredictable dangers of life at sea. With shantys, folk songs and newly composed music, as well as signing and poignant visual effects, All Hands! is an energising triumph. Little snippets of detail, like the problems of reading a newspaper in a storm-force wind and the dog (thanks to puppet maker Jess Manley) taking the last morsel of food, delighted everyone in the audience.

At a later performance, descendents of the Nornen’s crew and of the families that took the sailors in will be meeting up and attending the show, which is performed in the shadow of the church of St Andrew, dating back to 1361, with its Wren and Grinling Gibbons connections and its leaning tower.


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