PPP: Ship Rats

Sep 19 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆      Energetic

Traverse: Tue 19 – Sat 23 Sept 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Ship Rats by Alice Clark, the first in the latest series of A Play, A Pie and A Pint at the Traverse (co-presented with Òran Mór) is a pacy and intriguing work. There are undoubtedly problems with the play, but the vigour and acuity of the production go a long way towards compensating for them.

On a cargo ship in the late Victorian era, Jessie (Maddie Grieve), the captain’s wife, enters an unused cabin, throwing up and covered in blood. She is quickly joined by the ship’s cook, Jin Hai (Sebastian Lim-Seet). The captain is dead, the alarm has been raised, and both Jessie and Jin Hai have their own reasons for wanting to evade discovery.

Maddie Grieve in Ship Rats. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Clark’s script makes no attempts at faux-authentic period drama; instead it crackles and bristles with energy, not least in the almost constant swearing, which – like the rest of the dialogue – is full of brio.

The prejudices faced both by the only woman on the ship and by the only Chinese member of the crew are explored with anger and intelligence; at first this leads to a mutual antagonism, but it is clear that this will not necessarily last very long.

Laila Noble’s direction adds a further level of verve, while Gemma Patchett and Johnny Scott’s design makes typically good use of minimal dressing and a small space.


Essentially, therefore, this seems to be a thoroughly seaworthy production. However, it has very nearly been holed below the waterline before it even leaves port.

Very little that happens on stage stands any form of examination. However large the ship may be, it defies belief that the characters could successfully hide like this from a search party seeking a murderer. Not even for quarter of an hour, let alone the fifty minutes of the play – even in ‘the ship’s worst cabin’.

Sebastian Lim-Seet in Ship Rats. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Even the most ridiculous farces can get away with setting up a situation that the audience has to accept, but this play then makes the mistake of constantly drawing attention to itself. Mark Gillespie’s excellent sound design keeps reminding us of the rampaging sailors, which only serves to reinforce the implausibility – especially as more than once they seem to come to the door and then simply go away again without even bothering to look inside.

This goes well beyond willing suspension of disbelief into the realms of the frankly ludicrous; unfortunately many of the descriptions of what has taken place on board, and the plans for a possible escape, are no more logical.


The lack of narrative coherence is largely redeemed by the earthiness of Clark’s dialogue, which contains some fairly graphic references to torture and murder. The themes of racial and sexual discrimination are explored with considerable bite, with the lingering effects of the patriarchal and colonial mindset cleverly signposted.

The wilful ignorance and othering that still feature in the relationship between Europe and China are as present today as they were in the period depicted, while for those like Jessie very little has changed.

Grieve’s portrayal of Maddie is done with both fury and humour, and is very fine indeed; Seet-Lim’s Jin Hai is more circumspect, but no less expressive. The focus and the vitality they bring, together with the urgency of the issues raised, means that their situation has a believability almost despite itself.

Which all means that the play has a drive and spirit that overcomes some obvious flaws, and fairly speeds by.

Running time: 50 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 19 – Saturday 23 September 2023
Daily at 1.00 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Maddie Grieve and Sebastian Lim-Seet in Ship Rats. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


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