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Strike! by Tracy Ryan at Southwark Playhouse

A show called Strike! is invariably going to attract patrons who are, at least to some extent, in favour of industrial action. Looking at the programme’s notes, the timing of this production is coincidental rather than deliberate, in the sense that while there might be a fair bit of striking going on at the time of writing in various sectors, the play has been in development for a number of years. What’s striking (sorry) about this narrative is that it was for a cause greater than the pay and working conditions of the strikers themselves. Whatever one’s views on industrial action overall, it’s frankly difficult to argue against an expression of support for the anti-apartheid movement.

Strike! by Ardent Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Douet.
Strike! by Ardent Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Douet.

While the main storyline covers a period of almost three years, the timeline is ultimately much longer, going as far as Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013. As the play would have it, industrial action short of a strike began when the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union (IDATU), itself dissolved and merged into Mandate in 1994, told its members not to sell produce from South Africa – in practice, as the management of Dunnes Stores (still operating today, and still completely owned by the Dunne family) had continued to buy imported goods from there, this meant individual shop workers were to refuse to put such products through the tills, explaining to customers why they were not doing so. But when Mary (Chloe O’Reilly) is suspended by manager Paul (Paul Carroll) after a customer decides not to buy anything at all from Dunnes, wherever it came from, and not to return there, shop steward Karen (Jessica Regan), herself also suspended, encourages others to walk out.

In an era before the ubiquity of smartphones, and therefore the ability to quickly look something up, some of the workers weren’t exactly clued up on all things anti-apartheid, and so at least to begin with, they were quite happy to do anything, within the boundaries of reason (and even, for some of them, beyond that) to antagonise management who, they felt, treated the workforce savagely. Their union rep, Brendan (also Carroll) had told them the strike would only last a couple of weeks. It being July 1984, this was a statement that would come back to haunt him after the Irish Government eventually legislated for a total ban on South African imports – in April 1987. And even then, as Sinead (Ciana Howlin), who decided not to strike as she couldn’t afford to live on ‘strike pay’, and so had insider knowledge, pointed out, Dunnes continued to import some goods from South Africa through intermediaries, such that they could be passed off as imports from mainland Europe.

The play has a lot going for it – quite admirably, it gives a fair and balanced view of events, without an iota of preachiness. It’s a well-drilled show, with movements so carefully choreographed this might as well have been a musical. No prior knowledge of the strike or the era it covers is required, and the audience gets to know the strikers reasonably well. Nimrod Sejake (1920-2004) is played with gusto by Mensah Bediako, the older and wiser man exiled from South Africa who puts things into perspective for the young and impressionable shop floor workers. There are some laughs throughout, too, and a show that encompasses everything from tactics in maintaining the picket line in cold and wet weather to meeting Desmond Tutu and, separately, addressing the United Nations, is, if anything, distinctive. The scene changes are slick and speedy, and the narrative progresses at pace – an engaging and encouraging performance.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Dunne’s Stores, Dublin, July 1984

A South African grapefruit starts something that will take nearly three years to finish…

It’s a hot, hot summer and Frankie Goes to Hollywood are riding high in the charts. At Dunne’s Store, shop assistant Mary Manning refuses to ring up a grapefruit, sticking to her union instructions not to handle South African goods, in protest of the country’s apartheid policies. Mary is immediately suspended and it’s not long before she and eight other young women and one young man, all workers at Dunne’s, are out on strike. It’ll only last a few weeks…

Full of passion and humour, Strike! is the true story of the hardships and personal sacrifices, the friendships and camaraderie these extraordinary young people experienced as they stood up for what they believed in.

As their understanding of the suffering under apartheid in South Africa and the politics within their own Government deepened, they began a journey that would change their lives, and Ireland, forever.

Ardent Theatre Company presents
by Tracy Ryan
13 APR – 6 MAY 2023

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1 thought on “Strike! by Tracy Ryan at Southwark Playhouse”

  1. Excellent performance from a great cast.
    Captured the mood of the time perfectly as the strike gained strength from a whole range of people, including film and musical stars.
    Just hoping it will come to Dublin and it has the real life events to become a great movie

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