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Theatre Review ‘Come with us, run with us, we’re gonna change the world’

LYNNE WALSH recommends an uplifting musical narrative of Glasgow shipyards’ struggles past that is perfectly fit for the challenges of today

YES! YES! UCS!
Touring

IF this play doesn’t ignite a flame of pride in your heart for working-class struggle, check your pulse.

You may laugh, cry, sing along with raucous rock and melancholy folk. You’ll certainly yearn for the real leaders of the left, and celebrate again the victories of “people power” over venal politicians.

You’ll also witness two young actors, Heather Gourdie as Eddy, and Janie Thomson as Aggie, holding together this complex, demanding production, with an easy assurance usually associated with more mature performers.

Writer Neil Gore and director Louise Townsend made an interesting — possibly reckless — decision when they embarked on this piece. Doing their research with former shipyard workers, they captured the stories of both men and women.

In the story of the “work-in” at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in 1971-72, men were at the forefront, from the welders who sweated at their work, to union leaders such as the orator Jimmy Reid.

Townsend Productions took this male-dominated history, and put two young women at its heart. Not only does this reveal the way an entire community responds in crisis, but it takes these ingenues on a journey.

We are their fellow-travellers, alongside Eddy as she initially dominates the gawky Aggie, and again as she steels herself against the inevitable death of her father.

We urge Aggie to find her voice, to speak up against the injustice she is experiencing first-hand.

Devastated by the Tory government’s decision to close shipyards, this gauche youngster blossoms as she soaks up shop stewards’ rallying calls. “Their words light up something inside us,” she says.

A second-half transformation sees her switching from dowdy clothes to a snazzy 1970s dress. Belting out songs, she’s reminiscent of your gawky cousin at a family party, channelling Janis Joplin.

Eddy, by juxtaposition, is already quite the sophisticate in flares, smoking with aplomb and spouting dialectic learned from her dad, who told her: “You’re either in the Communist Party or the Tupperware party.”

The music, old and new, captures moments as emotions shift, and draws audiences closer. Gore’s choice of the (truly sensational) Alex Harvey’s Hammer Song is inspired: “Oh, please, don’t sell me out, said the man with the hammer, hammering the anvil.”

It brings the toil, and the rallying call of those who toil, into the small theatre spaces chosen for this tour. It’s worth highlighting that the venues mesh perfectly with the dramatic inspiration, the writing, direction and the dynamic it all creates.

The stills and film clips projected on the backdrop bring us right into the heart of the strike, with its mass meetings, and its working class heroes.

There’s an intake of breath from the audience as Reid urges the workforce to carry on: “…and there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be NO bevvying — because the world is watching us.”

There is nationalist fervour, too, as Reid speaks of a Scotland “not of the lairds and their lackeys… but the Scotland of the working people.”

An elderly woman in the audience tells me afterwards: “Yes, I thought that too — it’s not how the SNP turned out though, eh?”

There’s a foreshadowing of miners’ struggles to come, as Aggie addresses the women of Tate & Lyle’s workforce in Liverpool. More than a decade later, sisters in arms would find their own voices, in another union battle.

The resonance builds, as strikers create a humiliating climbdown for prime minister Edward Heath.

The audience, at Sands Film Studios in London’s East End, revelled in this proletariat victory, little knowing that a major employer was about to throw 800 workers off their ships and onto the dole.   

Actors and audiences well understand what the “fourth wall” is — it’s there to separate fiction from fact. It’s there to create illusion, and suspension of disbelief. Not here, nor in any Townsend endeavour, from their depictions of the Tolpuddle martyrs. International Brigaders, Grunwick strikers and the Shrewsbury pickets.

Here, much of the audience has “skin in the game.” The sons of dockers, granddaughters of miners, shop stewards, or simply all those who recall the vicious attacks on our unions and communities, from the Clyde to Onllwyn, from Liverpool to Wapping.

Gore’s handling of the music is inspired, and Townsend’s deft direction delivers emotional twists and turns that are never mawkish.

As young Eddy, an embryonic artist, completes a portrait of her father who has just died, she plays a tape of him singing to his family: “I’m only halfway to paradise. So near, yet so far away,” recorded by Codge Crawford doing his finest Billy Fury.

The effervescence in this piece comes from two lassies, determined to build a better world for their class, and for their sex.

A popular song from 1970 becomes their call to action: “Come with us, run with us / We’re gonna change the world / You’ll be amazed, so full of praise / When we’ve rearranged your world.”

Tours until May 1 2022, details from townsendproductions.org.uk.

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