Photos Reviews

The First Cut or Isabella's Revenge

November 2019

In 1563 Exeter City Council engaged a Welsh engineer to build a canal, after more than 200 years of feuding with the Earls of Devon about the weir they built upstream of Topsham. This is the story of how it happened. It features Isabella, Countess of Devon, John Trew the Canal builder and a cast of colourful characters across the 600 year history of the port of Exeter - from exporting wool to dumping sludge in the English Channel. Described by the author as "history as pantomime" The First Cut will have a live band, a cast of....well, a big cast, and all the best jokes from the world of frivolity and froth that is civil engineering.


David Batty -

Maggie Butt -

Alan Caig -

Becky Davies -

Bob Drury -

Suzanne Dunstan -

Mike Edwards -

Chris Eilbeck -

Howard Eilbeck -

Rose Gander -

Rob Hole -

Sam King -

Lynn Leger -

Nigel Mason -

Keith Palmer -

Bill Pattinson -

Clare Philbrock -

Cass Thorne -

Rosemary Whitehurst -

Ella Young -

John Bickford -

Jane Cope -

Min Wild -

Adrian Wynn -

Production Team:

Director - Alan Caig

Stage Manager - Janine Warre

Set and Publicity Design - Phil Keen

Lights - Peter Tapp

Wardrobe and Props - Janine Warre

Assistant Stage Managers - Pat Prince Angela Wallwork

Props made by - Peter Tapp Tom Epton Ella Young Maurice Webb and the company

Front of House - Rosie Munns Sharon Wannell and members of the company


From John Monks, Chair of the Friends of the Exeter Ship Canal:

Estuary Players has portrayed it with vision and good humour

Exeter Ship Canal is 453 years old and for 432 of them carried traffic that helped make Exeter what it is until the last commercial vessel, a sewage works sludge boat, took its final trip. Let's do a musical about it.

You can imagine the faces of the play selection committee, if there is such a body at the Estuary Players, at the suggestion. But however hard the author, and then director, Alan Caig had to work to clinch the idea for the show, he was gloriously right. The Exeter Ship Canal proves to be a rich if unlikely source of comedy and great original songs, and an instructive fable of human fortunes, greed and capacity for shambles. 'We called it 'The First Cut'. Cut is our lingo for a canal, just in case you were wondering,' an undoubted hero of the evening, the engineer John Trew, tells the audience at the start. We meet Trew, the canal's first builder, as he warms up the audience in Matthews Hall before the house lights dim.

Casting can be a problem in amateur companies but Trew's naturally broad shoulders and the imperious carriage of Countess Isabella de Fortibus whose profiteering ambitions for Topsham dock light the fuse for what is to come,keep us as focused on our history lesson as schoolchildren who know the penalties for lack of attention. There would be forfeits, Trew warns. 'You lot,' Isabella cheerfully insults us, wrinkling her nose. They are with us mentoring, hectoring and making the links throughout the passing centuries.

A memorable episode in Exeter Ship Canal's history is when, hopelessly short of necessary funds for enlargements and repairs, the city fathers of the Exeter Chamber call on the parishes within and without the city walls to send volunteers to dig. We'll tell them prosperity depends on it but we won't tell them it will be the merchants' declares one of the burghers. It is called 'community action', proclaims another. Such anachronistic knowingness salts the whole show. When John Trew in 1563 shocks the Chamber with an estimate of 5,000 pounds 'without PFI' to dig the first waterway, the Chamber calls a city vote. 52 per cent are for the canal. Topsham locals in the audience will not have missed the nuance of Countess Isabella's repeated references to the fate of the 'gap' in her weir.

Then there was the matter of Topsham Lock. An Act of Parliament in 1829 guaranteed its being kept open in perpetuity, 'which makes you wonder why it doesn't work now,' says the Countess, Topsham in her thoughts as always. Alan Caig uses a programme note to disarm. 'I have not shrunk from embroidery, exaggeration and anachronism,' he writes, disarmingly understating it perhaps. The programme is also discreet as to which parts members of the cast take, which is reasonable bearing in mind the cast of thousands implied by a story of community endeavour spanning 400 years but also emphasises the community spirit of the players themselves. They bought into the show with heart and soul and a great deal of collective joy, flitting easily in their characters from century to century and from cameo to massed citizenry to French onion Johnnies, and from spoken lines to musical numbers.

This review will respect the spirit of the programme by attaching no names but there were many commendable contributions to the continuity of the evening that deserve notice. John Trew, in real life a forgotten hero both in Exeter and generally by waterway historians, became a hero on the night by capturing audience attention for an explanation of how his pound lock worked and how without it the industrial revolution wouldn't. It was the high point of a grand performance that had the command and bombast of Owen Glendower, as well as the accent.

The Mayor and Chamber of Exeter revelled appreciatively throughout the evening in the anachronisms they were given. One felt their gain of ascendency in the rivalry between Topsham and Exeter was luck fuelled by naked ambition more than judgement, and it was somehow rather touching that in the final scenes their costume changed from impressive robes and wigs to the demotic sports jackets of a council committee. Certainly, Exeter was inconsistently served by its canal engineers, each portrayed as distinct characters but with a common tendency to overegg their qualifications drastically. The song of 'The Five Canal Builders' brought delighted applause, the last of the engineers, James Green, being a symbolically aging figure, experienced, high-achieving, venal, defiant, out of date, like the canal he completed from Turf to the new basin just as the railways were about to come over the horizon.

Other admirable performances that helped hold the shape of the canal's history included the Countess's chief of staff, the town crier, and the government inquisitor, who all reappeared across the centuries with manners and in guises suitable to the changing times. Behind the mild burlesque of the portrayal of one government inquiry into the state of the country's canals the players again managed to bring out the detail and depth of the serious issues involved and something of the fumbling of the past Exeter administrations.

All was celebration, however, before the inevitable end. Undulating diaphanous blue material showed the canal 'in water' at the start of the great industrial Canal Age. The projecting stage had the audience on three sides, putting us on the towpaths or at a lock gate as it were. The cast's ensemble skills were never more in demand on this narrow platform than when aboard the launch bearing civic dignitaries during the openings of Turf Lock and the Basin.

A century and a half of gradual decline, one might say degradation, passed before that last sailing of the sludge boat in 1998, barred now by European regulations from dumping waste at sea. It was an elegiac moment. The band of four vocalist musicians who had given the cast unwavering support through 432 years of canal history, came into their own as soloists as the lights dimmed and the vessel headed mournfully out on her final canal trip with 'three hundred tons of Devon sludge in the fading winter light' as the cast filed out of the hall. Melancholy also in their way were the preceding words of the Countess - yes, she was a presence to the very end - that the canal was now left for canoes, the occasional cruiser, walkers, runners. Pure Schadenfreude, one suspects.

But is this the inevitable end? On their seats in the hall the audience found leaflets from the Friends of Exeter Ship Canal with a manifesto for action for a new future for the canal as an active waterway. Exeter's the canal has always been, but a Topsham dramatic society has portrayed it with vision and good humour. A triumph.

- Reviewed by: John Monks


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