Last Updated on 7th November 2015
United We Stand
CLF Art Café, Bussey Building, Peckham
Townsend Productions have developed a strong reputation in presenting political theatre and their latest play is now running at in Peckham alongside an exhibition devoted to its theme – the national strike of building workers in 1972 and the subsequent prosecution and imprisonment of several of its leaders. Neil Gore is the author and carries over to this venture his skills as an adaptor of plays for two actors which have been seen to recent advantage in his telling of the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This production, like its predecessors, is now embarked on a national tour.
While the miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s and the Three Day Week are well known, that cannot now be said of the building workers’ strike of summer 1972 when for twelve weeks three hundred thousand workers downed tools in order to campaign for higher wages and better working conditions. It is undisputed that there was little or no consideration of health and safety on building sites at this time and that wages were depressed by the ‘lump sum’ system which allowed the employers to cut out related wage, pension and benefit costs. The strike was mainly successful, and owed that success in large measure to the devising of ‘flying pickets’ who moved from one site to another.
Some five months after its conclusion twenty four leaders of the strike were prosecuted under often antique legislation at Shrewsbury Crown Court, and three were jailed for serious charges involving conspiracy to intimidate and affray. The play focuses on the story of two of them – Des Warren – now deceased – and Ricky Tomlinson, very much still with us in his later guise as actor and celebrity performer. A fresh campaign to clear the names of those convicted has been underway since 2006, and this production forms an element of it. After the play was over the audience stayed behind to hear addresses from both Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, and Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and some extra music in folk vein coordinated by Musical Director, John Kirkpatrick.
So while this was clearly a political occasion, was it also a dramatic one? Political theatre has to strike a tricky balance between the necessary and important truth that all theatre is in several ways, ‘political’, and the danger of didactic preachiness devoid of character and felt life independent from the cause. On the whole the text and two players did manage to get the equilibrium right and sustain our intellectual and emotional engagement with the characters, through music, comic invention and a virtuoso juggling of roles.
The drama was presented with great economy of means in Amy Yardley’s set: some rudimentary scaffolding supporting boards with posters on one side, with panelling for the courtroom scenes on the other. Beyond that just a scatter of boxes, tea chests and an overhead projector which at intervals fitfully projected grainy images and film of the strike and of Ted Heath and other figures from the 70s. The rest of the work is over to the actors and musicians – Neil Gore again, and William Fox. Each takes on a multiplicity of roles, but in the main Gore impersonated Tomlinson and Fox took on the key and tragic figure of Des Warren, around whom the drama really revolves.
The actors set about their task with great energy and commitment. In theatre like this you need to get the audience involved, breaking down the fourth wall, and that Fox did in particular while still developing the lines of his character. The music was a great strength too – both players could sing well and give a decent account of themselves on guitars of different sizes. There is no quicker or easier way of bringing the 1970s to life than through its music and some of the best moments of the evening for the audience (mainly of that certain age) came as music and text evoked the idealism and activism of those years and the distinctly wobbly and unconvincing response of those in authority.
Director Louise Townsend introduced a lot of plausible movement and lighter comedic moments into the action that balanced the darker narrative of a conspiracy between government, police, employers and judiciary. Cartoonish elements were present – as they have to be – when the outlines of a complex narrative have to be compressed tightly and simplified to point a moral. However the central roles were delineated in convincing detail – we saw evidence of Warren’s leadership charisma and dry humour, and Tomlinson’s organising skills and moral passion for the cause. We also got a sense of who they were as people outside the matrix of the strike itself. Some of the minor roles were well drawn too, especially Gore’s ingratiating union negotiator all too keen to split the differences over the issues just to preserve union funds.
I was not entirely convinced by the thesis of a huge establishment conspiracy at work – even on this account the authorities seemed too panicked and disorganised for that. But whatever one’s political sympathies there is clearly evidence here of episodes of manifest injustice and legal irregularities in this tale that justifies the lingering anger and the present campaign – not least in Warren’s early death, most likely hastened by the enforced administration during his time in jail of a cocktail of drugs known as the ‘liquid cosh.’ The drama evokes this unshowily, and also demonstrates the high human costs involved for those at the centre of the action.
The first half of the play had its slower moments when necessary exposition is not grounded in convincing enactment; and there were some points, eg a long gameshow parody, when the dramatic mechanisms came over as clumsy. Yet when we moved into the darker sections of the second half the format had a gathering logic and tension about it that was wholly compelling. There was a very telling interrogation scene and intense courtroom exchanges that produced a real stillness of concentration among the audience. The speeches given from the dock by Tomlinson and Warren after conviction were delivered verbatim by the actors and represent very fine pieces of writing that belong in any anthology of modern political oratory.
Oscar Wilde famously said that the problem with socialism was that it takes ‘too many evenings’, a scepticism that these days extends to parties across the board, given the degree of cynicism about politics and the motives associated with those who practice it. United We Stand is a powerful refutation of this view and a reassertion of the continuing value of political theatre too. Its channelling of moral passion, a powerful narrative, evocative music, self-aware humour, and a campaigning cause produces a compelling evening that earns and deserves respect.