Moribund politics: with the Tories courting unpopularity virtually unopposed, the Liberal Democrats finding that downsizing principles means downsizing their Parliamentary footprint and the Labour Party apparently intent on devouring its own entrails in some kind of Corbynastic sacrifice, it is very good for soul and sanity to discover that Political Theatre is alive and kicking and energising audiences in Peckham.
Louise Townsend’s sparky, edgy and intelligently reflective production is the kind of theatre that political activists crave and wider audiences need. In essence United We Stand is, like Journey’s End, a historical document that I’m certain will be referenced down the ages. Performed with remarkable gusto by just its writer, Neil Gore, and fellow performer, William Fox, the pair take on a myriad of roles in re-creating the story, making this a spectacular Two de Force.
The original Shrewsbury 24 became, in 1973, the Shrewsbury Three when John McKinsie Jones, Des Warren and one Eric (AKA Ricky) Tomlinson were jailed under the 1875 act (yes, that old standby) for “conspiracy”. It is great credit to the show that it resists all temptation to play on Ricky’s subsequent fame and the words “Brookside” and “Royle Family” are never mentioned.
The “conspiracy” was that the Three organised strikes and flying pickets in a building industry dispute against “the Lump” – the way casual builders were paid with a lump sum – a system that was universally seen as unfair and a way to keep wages down to a minimum. The fact that the dispute had been settled and work had resumed on all building sites for five months before conspiracy charges were brought with the Shrewsbury Three dragged into court and jailed, leads to the suspicion that the real conspiracy was between the powerful building lobby, the government and the police. This is a point made effectively by the show which incorporates music, puppets, pantomime, projection, a TV game-show format and fast costume changes in developing its theme: this is Agit Prop theatre at its most agitated, at its most uncompromising.
To do this as effectively as the Townsend Productions show does you need accomplished and highly effective performers. The modern phenomenon is that actors are not just actors but need to be singers, dancers and good musicians as well. Gore and Fox played their guitars, ukuleles, snares, cymbals and that good old Ringo Starr standby – the packing case – as second nature. Musical Director John Kirkpatrick of Steeleye Span fame provided a hard-folk edge with new (to me) songs and a rousing rendition of that seminal Strawbs classic Part of the Union which had the whole audience foot-stomping and singing along.
The interwoven musical thread of the piece added a Brechtian flavour to the vibrant political drama. But the comparison ended there: far from wishing to alienate the audience Townsend and her cast wanted to draw the audience in, use us as part of the action, get us to be workers at a union meeting reacting to the latest diktats of the oppressive construction industry bosses: this was Ultimate Audience Participation exemplified by the reaction of Len McClusckey, next to whom I was seated, who instinctively and loudly exclaimed “Sell out!” when a mealy-mouthed Union convenor refused to wholeheartedly back the pickets’ actions. A contemporary Union Boss shouting at a dramatic representation of an authentic historical figure? This was Metatheatre writ large and full testament to the power of this extraordinary production.
Fox’s constant dialogue with the audience, in asides, ad-libs, jokes and unscripted commentary also helped us to feel we were “there”. “We hate the police” he intoned, hurriedly adding “unless there are any in”. Followed by: “We hate the press – and we don’t care if you’re in”.
The show is fully supported by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign which is still actively demanding justice 42 years on. The most remarkable fact to come out of the evening is that there are still documents of interest being withheld by successive governments – yes, including, as Mr McCluskey acerbically pointed out after the show – 13 years of a Labour government, despite the fact that the 30 year rule has passed. The reason? National Security.
This powerful drama might, perhaps, remind Theresa May that her government promised to be the most transparent UK government ever.
Review by Peter Yates
UNITED WE STAND
A new play by Neil Gore
In 1972 tens of thousands of building workers won the first national strike in the industry for better pay and conditions. ‘Flying pickets left the contractors reeling. The Tory government and the large building companies wanted revenge, and the ‘Shrewsbury 24’ were put on trial in the following year.
‘Townsend Productions’ new play, UNITED WE STAND, follows in the traditional of their highly successful productions The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and We Will Be Free!-the Tolpuddle Martyrs Story, and focuses on the true and still very current events that led to the imprisonment of building workers Des Warren and Eric Tomlinson (Ricky Tomlinson of ‘The Royle Family’).
It will reflect the great tide of anger, which rocked the very foundations of the established political elite, examine the extraordinary political will of all the participants and share the anguish of falling prey to a flagrant miscarriage of justice.
Combining Townsend Productions’ trademark small-cast, grand theatrical style and wit with popular and political songs of the early seventies (directed by John Kirkpatrick) and Ricky Tomlinson’s poems from his time in prison, this production aims to bring the full story of this compelling dispute to life, and will guarantee a powerfully challenging and entertaining evening for all its audiences.
United We Stand
2nd to 14th November 2015