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Iris Theatre’s Workin Process: Haymarket

Haymarket: Photo Credit Polly Bycroft-Brown
Haymarket: Photo Credit Polly Bycroft-Brown

As this production is clearly a work in progress, I dispense with awarding a star rating for Haymarket, whose story has nothing to do with the media group owned by Lord Heseltine, or the street that runs between Piccadilly Circus and Pall Mall. This is about the Haymarket Affair – as it is called – of 1886 in support of the eight-hour workday. Its supporters, as banners at the rear of the performance space made clear, were in favour of a twenty-four period broadly consisting of eight hours given over each to work, sleep and ‘recreation’. It is probably better understood as the ‘forty-hour week movement’, as the work week was typically six days a week.

But for a musical about the events that led up to the massacre and its aftermath – and even its legacy – there could have been much more conviction in the characters as they were portrayed. When August Spies (1855-1887) (Richard Lounds) complains, “I’m angry!” he could, to be blunt, have given the audience more of an impression that he was fuming. The sound worked well when a grand speech was being made by someone in a core group that became known in some quarters as ‘The Chicago Anarchists’, or when spoken dialogue was devoid of music. But unamplified voices combining with actor-musicianship gave a sound that swung from jarring to barely decipherable, and back again.

There was talent on stage, but the orchestrations were very bland overall, such that the actor-musicianship at the production’s disposal was underused. Particularly in the first half, few musical numbers drove the story forward, instead either reinforcing a point already made or about to be made, or otherwise making the same point repeatedly. One number in the second half, where inequalities and injustices in the American legal system at the time were lampooned by way of a series of rather (perhaps deliberately) unimpressive circus tricks, went on too long, and was ultimately superfluous: the audience is intelligent enough to determine the unfairness of a court verdict when presented with the evidence.

I wish I had done a tally of the number of times the words “I was there” was used by anyone in the show, partly because it was used so often, even when I had no idea who some of the characters were who claimed to be ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ happened to be. I had to stop myself from bursting out laughing as it transpired that many of the characters, when push came to shove, claimed not to be there when the Haymarket riot actually took place (so it is not depicted on stage). Above all, it seemed rather strange to use the word ‘I’ quite so often when the forty-hour week movement was meant to have been, and largely was, a collective effort.

There is insufficient character development, even of the central characters, Albert Parsons (1848-1887) (Max Young), August Spies, and Parsons’ wife Lucy (c. 1853-1942) (Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong, the stand-out performer in this production). Nothing is mentioned, for instance, about Albert and Lucy being forced to leave Texas and head north because of community intolerance for their inter-racial marriage. The print media are seen through rose-tinted lenses, or so the almost relentlessly jaunty musical numbers would suggest, and the anarchists smile as they flick through newspapers as though they enjoyed universal critical acclaim. (They did not.)

The movement and choreography were very good, however. It had some nice moments, such as when George Engel (1836-1887) (Christopher Whitmore), Adolph Fischer (1858-1887) (Alex Marchi) and Louis Lingg determine between them to rise up, and when Lucy starts to build on the work Albert and the others begun. The show has potential, but it could be tightened and condensed into a single-act production with more vibrancy and a greater sense of urgency. Singing about having a parade when the plight of the working classes was – and to some extent still is – rather bleak just doesn’t sound like something these characters would do.

By Chris Omaweng

Iris Theatre’s Workin Process programme, now in its fourth year, developed out of the need for a platform for new musical theatre writers to showcase their work. Annually, the programme supports up to eight new musicals showcase in a central London location at The Actors’ Church in Covent Garden. This autumn, Workin Process will see three new musicals presented in their full form at the iconic London location and the return of annual new writing showcase, Xmas Factor, for its sixth year after last year’s sell-out Xmas Factor: All-Stars which saw the company produce a 100% crowdfunded album of new musical theatre songs.

The autumn season includes Haymarket by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld, Atmosphere by Miranda Walker and Michael Childs, The Lightning Road by Flora Leo, and Anna Karenina by Maria Shepard.

Haymarket, which was first produced in Chicago this year, is the true story of Chicago’s infamous Haymarket riots in 1886, a story of protesting anarchists for fair working rights that resulted in a corrupt trial and the death of five innocent men. Set against a backdrop of bluegrass and Americana folk music the show is told by a cast of twelve actor-musicians. Written by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld and directed by Sally Beck Wippman Haymarket will come to the Actors’ Church for two performances on the 18th and 19thof September.

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