John Wilton could not have foreseen this when he built his East London music hall more than one hundred and fifty years ago, but it would become the perfect setting for a musical about one of the most dramatic episodes in the evolution of industrial relations, the matchgirls’ strike of 1888.
Partially upstaged by the dockers’ actions the following year, the girls’ walkout from the grim Bryant and May factory in Bow was the more audacious of the two, flying in the face of two prevailing assumptions of superiority – that of the employer and, more crucially still, that of the male.
In a sense this wonderfully restored hall is a character in the long story; in one of its many incarnations it was a support centre and soup kitchen for those striking dockers of ’89. Moreover, rehearsals for this production, a collaboration between the leftwing Red Ladder company and the Dumbwise ensemble of actor-musicians, with support from the union Unite, were held in nearby Hanbury Hall. This was the very place where the matchgirls met to organise their protests, with the help and vital publicity given by the radical journalist Annie Besant.
As the backdrop to a local story with national repercussions, the reclaimed elegance of this old populist palace could hardly be bettered; never more so than when the lead striker and hence lead girl Kate gives a sung rendition of their struggle against the exploitations of sixteen-hour working days, unspeakable conditions and arbitrarily docked pay. The whole thing has a horribly topical relevance with the collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh in April, with the loss of more than a thousand lives. Health and safety sacrificed on the altar of profit, the old story.
This musical is also worth catching on account of its own place in a larger history. As far as I can tell there have been no major revivals since its premiere in 1966. It was the first musical directed by the choreographer Gillian Lynne, and its writing was a collaboration between the actor Bill Owen and songwriter Tony Russell. Given its theme and epoch, it is no surprise that it bears echoes of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, with its moving mix of solo despair and collective celebration.
Director John Ward draws a heartfelt performance from his Kate, Laura Kirman who, like many in the seventeen-strong cast, is a recent graduate from drama school. This is in effect as much a student production as a showcase for mostly young professionals, and they should not be judged too harshly for being works in progress. There is evidence of real talent here, particularly from Clara Powell as the ruefully comical Winnie and Yvonne Wickham as the forceful moral conscience, Mrs. Purkiss.
Outstanding too are the four actor-musicians: joint musical directors Eilidh deBonnaire and David Hewson; David Heywood and Elliott Rennie, all but one of whom have trained, like their director, at Rose Bruford College in Kent.
Between them they bring veuve and variety to a score which ranges from, appropriately, music-hall to pre-Lloyd-Webber pop.
This is a show that should, well, strike. In the lightning sense. Fired by the two unstoppables of youth and outrage, it should take the roof of whatever building it finds itself in. At times Ward’s production threatens to do that. At other moments it is a victim of its own decorum, as much at home, figuratively, in Annie Besant’s drawing room as at the factory gates. The score might bear part of the responsibility for this, since the use of one-gender unison is always subject to the law of diminishing returns.
A programme note. I could find no mention of the show’s creators, Owen and Russell. On the Wilton’s website, yes, they are there. But in the programme, which is where you want to read about how a piece of work came to be, not a dicky bird. Credit where it’s due. Isn’t that what Besant and the matchgirls were about?
Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks
Unite The Union
Red Ladder Theatre Company
Friday 5th July 2013