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Paved with Gold and Ashes at Old Red Lion Theatre

It’s an important part of both American and industrial history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City happened on 25 March 1911, a Saturday afternoon. The events were so shocking in terms of the number of preventable deaths that workplace safety legislation was introduced as a result, as was the membership body of US occupational health and safety professionals, initially called the United Association of Casualty Inspectors, renamed in 1914 as the American Society of Safety Engineers and again in 2018 as the American Society of Safety Professionals.
Paved with Gold and Ashes
There were 146 recorded deaths, 123 women and girls and 23 men, and the fire is mostly described rather than dramatized – fair enough, as the latter would be very difficult to achieve and would probably be disrespectful to the memories of those who died. And who wants to see people jumping off a burning building in the vain hope they might survive the fall from nine or ten floors up? The doors to the staircases and exits were locked because the factory’s management was convinced the predominantly female workforce were all thieves, and would even, as this production’s narrative would have it, insist on searching everyone’s bags before they were allowed to leave the premises at the end of their shift, despite a similar search on entry and the placing of said items in locked storage during people’s shifts.

Before all of this, however, the audience gets to know five of the factory workers – Lucia (Julia Thurston) and Rosaria (Caroline Letelier), older and younger sisters from Italy, Ida (Serena Lehman) and Rose (Everleigh Brenner), separate characters both of the Jewish faith, and Annie (Olivia Gaidry), of Irish extraction. Details of Annie’s history are thin on the ground: perhaps Thurston, who also wrote this play, takes the view that there are enough plays (and books, and movies) out there already about Irish emigration to America.

The sight of so much cloth at the start of the show was immediately reminiscent of those plays set in the days before washing machines, when women would be washing garments by hand in a stream, and it is only through a persistent sound effect of a sewing machine whirring away as well as the ladies’ storytelling that it becomes clear the setting is far, far away from the countryside fresh air. The backstories, if I can call them that, are fairly intriguing, but ultimately unsurprising – the sisters argue as siblings tend to do, and others talk about their exploits with the opposite sex in a manner befitting young women in a staffroom (that is, out of earshot of their parents).

They are, however, necessary, in order to understand what is at stake and in grave danger when the critical incident that dominates the second half of the play occurs. The audience is left to draw their own comparisons between the Triangle Fire and the workplace misdemeanours and safety failures that still go on today. Very much an ensemble piece of theatre, if anything it’s a useful reminder that behind every factory worker is a human being, with just as many aspirations and frustrations as anyone else.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

An Edinburgh Fringe London Preview.

Based on a true event in New York City, 1911. With immigrants arriving in floods from all over Europe, for many the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is one of the most coveted places to work. Some say that in America the streets are paved with gold – full of wealth and opportunity. But as these five young women battle poverty, capitalism, unfair working conditions, and – on one fateful afternoon in March – one of the deadliest workplace disasters in US history, their dreams soon turn to ashes…

Written by Julia Thurston
Produced by Threedumb Theatre

Everleigh Brenner as Rose
Olivia Gaidry as Annie
Serena Lehman as Ida
Caroline Letelier as Rosaria
Julia Thurston as Lucia


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