It’s very difficult, for an audience at a Townsend Production, not to become engaged, enthused and fairly speedily fully immersed in the show. The company possesses a certain magic which is, I think, actually a light touch combined with a heavy political leitmotif – a difficult, rare and inevitably winning combination. This group of people know their craft, know how best to utilise it and, most important of all, know how to mobilise a single-minded determination to create a drama that is truly political and wholly entertaining.
We go back in time to 1909/10 and visit the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in the Black Country. Men use to make the big heavy chains for things like anchors in the factories whilst their womenfolk stayed at home and forged the lighter chains in outhouses at their homes. The work was unforgiving. After feeding their husbands and tending their children the women took up hammer and tongs, stood over the raging furnace, beat iron rods which they shaped into the individual links. They were supervised by a “fogger” who liaised with the company and supplied the metal rods and tools. Unforgiving? They worked 12 hours a day hammering 5,000 links a week. Five Thousand. For this they earned 4 or 5 shillings. And they were entirely in the hands of the fogger – many of them completely unscrupulous – who paid piece rates and imposed fines if targets weren’t met. It was daylight slavery in the half-light of the forge creating a generation of women who were old before their time.
Then into this iniquitous and very lucrative (for the bosses and owners) labour market strode Mary Macarthur. With her own organisation, The National Federation of Women Workers, her mission was to help the nation’s poorest paid workers and thus she galvanised (sorry) the chainmakers of Cradley Heath into realising their collective potential, taking a stand and joining a Trade Union. This was socialism at work, this was proper workers’
representation, this was making foggers and bosses and owners and politicians sit up and take notice.
The story is related to us mainly through song – the show is a charmingly effective folk-opera. Townsend Productions have done one-person shows and two-handers but this time they have really pushed the boat out and Rouse Ye Women! has no less than three performers! I say three but with the Company’s USP of audience involvement it is actually four.
As ever, writer Neil Gore leads the way with his cheeky chappy glint in the eye and his put-upon under-swagger whenever the character he’s playing has inevitably to go into defensive mode. He actually implores the audience to help when under the invective cosh from the strong women in the piece. Gore created the play with usual musical collaborator, folk musician John Kirkpatrick, whose songs range from the melancholic, minor chord, plaintive ballad to the rousing easily sung chorus numbers that the audience can’t help but join in. As narrator, Gore sings himself and accompanies the other performers on his wonderful collection of guitars, banjos, mandolins and, as usual, employs his stalwart rhythm section packing case with a tinge of tambourine snare which is joined at one point by the rhythmic tapping of an ancient typewriter. It’s classy music and it both pulls the heartstrings and stirs the blood. He also has two fine female voices at his disposal.
Rowan Godel, as chainmaker Bird, periodically joins Gore on banjo – when she is not bashing metal on metal in her claustrophobic outhouse forge. Godel infuses Bird with some of the fire from her furnace as she transitions, under the tutelage of Mary Macarthur, from down-trodden, wretched fogger-fodder into political activist as she fights for her rights, for fair pay and, most importantly, for her pride. Godel is thoroughly convincing and gets across the dirt and the squalor which she, like many others like her, channels into grit and determination. And she has a lovely voice. With her bell-like clarity and wistful intonation, I was thinking there’s just a touch of Sandy Denny in there.
As Mary Macarthur, Bryony Purdue – the very prim-and-proper rebel-rouser – strides in and takes the audience by the scruff of the neck. Purdue doesn’t have to ask us to sing – a flick of the hand is enough; she doesn’t have to ask us to cheer – a raised eyebrow does the trick; and she doesn’t have to ask us to wildly wave the flags that are scattered around the auditorium – a wryly curled lip is all that is needed. It’s an immense performance – confident, challenging, knowing and graced with a slightly tongue-in-cheek humour which makes us warm to her and the character she portrays. And she pumps out the songs, too, softly strident, engagingly defiant.
All this is smelted (sorry again) together by the company’s wondrous director Louise Townsend. These are never easy stories to relay – there’s a lot of factual stuff to get across, there’s a big panoramic narrative to communicate with just three actors to do it. And there’s that subtle audience immersion as well. One of many delicious moments is when the fogger (Gore) is trying to persuade Bird to sign a document. He holds the paper in front of her, hands her a pen and she slowly moves her hand towards it. Shouts of “Don’t sign!” immediately emanate from all parts of the auditorium whilst Gore stage-whispers “Shuddup!” out of the corner of his mouth. This happens a couple of times and it’s testament to the inclusive atmosphere that Townsend creates that this – in a stuffy old theatre (!) – should happen so spontaneously.
Townsend’s ethos, with her partner in crime Gore, is to tell a social story with a credible political message in a way that is always entertaining. It’s a magic trick, as I suggested at the beginning. Townsend is the magician.
Review by Peter Yates
This groundbreaking folk opera tells the true story of Mary Macarthur and the women chainmakers and features original songs and music composed by revered folk musician John Kirkpatrick (Steeleye Span, Home Service, Richard Thompson Band).
Women chainmakers in the Black Country in the 1900s started work at the forge as children and spent their entire lives making chains. These women had no vote, were largely illiterate, worked a 54-hour week for ‘starvation wages’, and had to take their children to work.
But in the Autumn of 1910 hundreds of women chainmakers of Cradley Heath held a ten-week strike against their employers. Led by the remarkable trade union organiser and campaigner Mary Macarthur, they won a minimum wage which doubled their incomes.
More importantly, they returned to work confident in the knowledge that by sticking together in a union they could stand up to the chain masters and companies.
The strike was a prelude to the ‘Great Unrest’ of industrial action that swept Britain in 1911, and led to a landmark victory for a fair wage, changing the lives of thousands of workers, whilst proving their economic power.
ROUSE, YE WOMEN!
A play by Neil Gore based on the true story of Mary Macarthur and the women chainmakers
Director: Louise Townsend
Designer: Elizabeth Wright
Lighting Designer: Daniella Beattie
Music by John Kirkpatrick and Neil Gore
Touring 4 Feb – 18 April 2019