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Theatre Review: Martyrs’ cause a reminder of how status quo can be challenged

We Will Be Free! The Carriageworks, Leeds 4/5

The need to revive the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ spirit to fight against today’s wage race to the bottom is continually implied in Neil Gore’s We Will Be Free!

The struggle for higher wages and the six mens’ impact on trade unionism is told through the upheaval caused to Betsy Loveless and the other wives of the farm labourers, who were transported in 1834 to Australia for swearing an oath as members of a secret society.

A two-hander that’s framed by a mummers show, it pitches the martyrs’ fight for fair pay on a par with the epic struggle of Saint George with the dragon.  This use of broadly comedic performance, with Gore and Charlotte Powell playing multiple roles, foreshadows the rest of the show.

Avoiding polemic by having an almost pantomimic quality, authority figures speak in rhyme to signify their privileged position in society. The audience is invited to raucously boo and hiss as projections of Andy Vine’s cartoon figures populate the courtroom.

Despite these larger-than-life tactics, the focus remains firmly on the plight of the individual. Jo Barber’s design employs unpainted wood and neutral fabrics for secondary props, which means they don’t detract from the central characters, and there’s likewise genuine feeling in the hymns and folk songs entwined in the plot.

It’s these songs, arranged by John Kirkpatrick, that inject most of the play’s emotional core and they’re especially well used when the mood turns darker in the second act.

They’re valuable too because the caricatured characters often suffer from being one-dimensional, leaving little sense of the snowballing fight for justice.

Elements of the later scenes feel rushed, as they only briefly touch on the processes by which the six men were pardoned. But We Shall Be Free! nonetheless remains a compelling reminder of the power of people to change the status quo.

Touring until May 15, details:



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