I don’t know how up-to- date the script for A Splotch of Red was meant to be; when Yes, Prime Minister played in the West End in 2010 and on its subsequent UK tour, the script was apparently regularly updated with topical references to events relating to the then Coalition government. But a line from Will Thorne (James Dallimore) to Keir Hardie (Samuel Caseley) about not saying too much about Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t have been more apt when a news story had broken out only hours before this particular performance of this play, involving the spin machines of modern politics: Corbyn was apparently recorded sat on the floor of a train to demonstrate the problem of overcrowding on the railways. The said train, according to some sources, had seats available.
Exactly how or why Thorne and Hardie have returned to Newham in 2016, as they referred to what was then the Essex constituency of West Ham South, is never explained. Neither is it clear why they feel the need to disappear again so suddenly, and the production takes more suspension of disbelief than should be strictly necessary for a play about the trade union movement that led to the founding of the Labour Party – that is, actual historical events. The play focuses almost entirely on the West Ham aspect of Hardie’s life and career. Given his wife and children were still based in their native Scotland, anyone wanting to know more about Hardie outside politics and Parliament will reach the end of this otherwise informative production none the wiser, at least on that specific front.
Hardie is portrayed in this play as rather stern and uncompromising, and while there is the inevitable ‘Tory-bashing’, it is made clear why certain policies are disliked. This is not opportunistic provocation of working class sentiment. The use of eight “local young performers” (as the show’s programme refers to them) cannot go unnoticed. The exact ages of the younger members of the cast, who, if I have counted correctly, play 35 characters between them, are difficult to estimate – partly because they play parts such as William Gladstone (Michael-Junior Roberts) and Viscount Peel, Speaker of the House of Commons (Aman Basha). But to give you an idea, the production justifies the use of a chaperone.
The show decides to maintain the venue’s fluorescent strip lighting throughout, such that the ‘house lights’ (whatever those are in a venue that does not ordinarily serve as a theatre performance space) do not go down. This was, overall, distracting, especially as the supporting cast never leave the room, leaning against any one of the four walls whenever not on stage. The audience is sat longitudinally on both sides of the stage, and in the bright glare of the fully illuminated room not a facial expression from the ‘other’ side of the room goes unnoticed.
Some of the acting needs further development, particularly in the art of projection, though they are, in a sense, already getting that development in a show that does not use microphones. The staging is done very well, with both sides of the audience getting a good view of proceedings. I very much appreciated the palpable hope and optimism of this piece of theatre, which was qualified by a number of valid misgivings about how much impact a person can make. This play does well to highlight that certain social issues are as pertinent now as they were when Keir Hardie was at the height of his political influence. Even if members of the socialist Fabian Society would probably end up feeling less welcome than members of the Conservative Party, this is nonetheless an absorbing and passionate play about an absorbing and passionate man.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham
by Jim Kenworth
Directed by James Martin Charlton
Keir Hardie is Labour’s great pioneer and its greatest hero. Without him, the party would never have existed. Newham, the London borough whose motto is “Progress with the People”, has a strong connection with Hardie. In the 1892 General Election, Hardie stood as the Independent candidate for the West Ham South constituency.
An illegitimate and wretchedly poor son of a servant, Hardie had worked in the coal mines from the age of 10. How could he possibly take on the formidable might of the Conservative Party candidate, the wealthy and blue-blooded Major Banes? Could he actually win the election in West Ham and become Britain’s fist socialist MP?
From the same writer and director team who staged Orwell’s Animal Farm as Revolution Farm on an inner city Newham farm, A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham is being performed site specific in Newham’s libraries and Community Links’ Neighbours Hall in Canning Town. This was the hall where Hardie spoke at one of his many election rallies in Newham, and as a centre for social change, Will Thorne, Bertrand Russell and Sylvia Pankhurst were all to speak, or work, from there.
This is a free event at libraries supported by Newham Council – just turn up at the Library of your choice, but reservation on www.splotchofred.co.uk ensures entry.
A Splotch of Red:
Keir Hardie in West Ham
Monday 22 August at 4.00pm
Beckton Globe Library,
Kingsford Way, E6 5JQ
Tuesday 23 August at 3.00pm & 7.30pm
The Grove, E15 1EL
Wednesday 24 August at 6.00pm
East Ham Library
328 Barking Road, E6 2RT
Thursday 25 August at 2.00pm
The Gate Library
4-20 Woodgrange Rd, E7 OQH