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Theatre review: Nothing to lose but their chains

LYNNE WALSH sees an inspirational production celebrating a landmark women's strike

Rouse, Ye Women!
Touring

TELLING historical truths, driving a drama, involving the audience and providing a damn good night out — it’s a tall order.

But for Townsend Productions, it’s what they do. Their provenance, and their commitment to radical history, has fast become a hallmark. So it proves with this story of Mary Macarthur and the female chainmakers’ strike.

In a production exceeding expectations, there are 20 songs  — a few of them traditional —  as sung by women at their forges or on marches and most are from the pen of the hugely talented John Kirkpatrick, renowned folk musician, writer and the company’s musical director.

Neil Gore, writer, actor and musician, delivers a prologue that’s almost Shakespearean, a beautifully crafted piece telling us where and when we are — Cradley Heath in 1910.

The women are almost at the bottom of the social heap, keeping house, minding babies, serving husbands and forging chains in small outhouses.

They’re at the mercy of middlemen, the “foggers,” who often cheat them. Gore plays one such, switching from the avuncular to the irascible when his flirting is not welcomed by Bird (Rowan Godel).

Perfectly cast, she’s initially downtrodden, exhausted and vulnerable. There’s a touch of Cinderella in her situation, though she hopes for neither a Fairy Godmother nor Prince Charming.

Her husband, making bigger chains in a factory and already in a union, expects his dinner on the table and his house cleaned. In Cradley Heath in 1910, sex is destiny.

Mary Macarthur arrives on the scene more as a socialist Mary Poppins, complete with carpetbag. Opera singer Bryony Purdue is incandescent in the role, communicating Macarthur’s fervour for justice in every stride and her sweetly stentorian voice commands confidence.

With the song Bundle of Sticks Purdue, accompanied by Gore, has the audience singing along. A worker without a union, Macarthur had said, is like a single stick, bent or broken to the will of her employer. A trade union, a “bundle of sticks,” is unbreakable.

Armed with the law she helped create, she’s ready for the battle with bosses and foggers. But first, this firebrand must convince Bird and here’s where director Louise Townsend’s deft hand creates a powerful moment. Reprising Bundle of Sticks, cast and audience sing together, and Bird’s whole demeanour, responding with hope, transforms.

The joyful tone of music hall permeates the production, aided and abetted by Gore’s comic timing and one of the stand-outs is traditional song Act on the Square, Boys, whose new lyrics has the women appealing to the men in their life for solidarity.

If you get the chance, go and see this. In fact, go twice. Take friends, family and random strangers. And when you see that bundle of sticks brandished aloft, don’t even attempt to keep a dry eye.

Tours until April 18, details: townsendproductions.org.uk.

 

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