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THERE’S a huge treat on the horizon for those who favour theatre based on real life, with the new folk-ballad opera Rouse, Ye Women!, the story of the trailblazing women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in the Black Country soon to tour nationally.
In 1910, organiser and campaigner Mary Macarthur — burning with injustice at the appalling conditions in which workers toiled — led a strike which won victory not only for the chainmakers but for many who had been on the lowest wages bosses could get away with.
Townsend Production's Rouse, Ye Women! is an ambitious task – Macarthur’s relatively short life was packed with incident – but one that’s safe in the hands of writer, actor and musician Neil Gore and director Louise Townsend, who formed the company in 2011.
The team’s reputation is built on the political commitment driving their work, as well as tough touring schedules bringing theatre to community centres, pubs and schools, along with arts centres, theatres and festivals.
Past productions include Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, the thrilling tale of Wall of Death motorcycle rider Clem Beckett, who joined the International Brigade and fought alongside the Spanish people against Franco’s fascist army. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a magic lantern show devised by Gore, has been heaped with praise and tours again from May this year.
And one of the finest shows last year was the company’s We Are the Lions, Mr Manager! which shone a spotlight on the magnificent Jayaben Desai, who led the Grunwick strike in the fight not only for better pay and conditions but for dignity in the workplace.
Gore, about to plunge into rehearsals for this latest venture, is in a state of relaxed trepidation when he speaks to the Morning Star. His track record is significant, with some 35 years in community theatre, having co-founded the co-operative Metro Theatre Company in Sheffield with Stephen Daldry and touring new plays throughout the 1980s.
“I started in theatre at university. I went to Sheffield to do psychology but did silly comedy [with a then unknown Eddie Izzard, amongst others.] It’s more challenging now, because you couldn’t run a company as we did in the 1980s with 10 or 11 members. Now, we make it work with two or three actors.”
Audiences lucky enough to have had the Townsend Productions experience know how well this works. As Gore explains: “There’s a lot of material, it’s true, a lot of detail. But it’s about an impression, it’s what you leave audiences with. We use projection, images, lighting – they all help tell the story.
“We break down that fourth wall. I don’t feel I write plays, as such — they’re experiences for audiences.” Song is central to that experience in this production, with folk singers Bryony Purdue and Rowan Godel playing Macarthur and one of the chainmakers respectively.
Folk titan John Kirkpatrick, who has joined Gore in writing original songs inspired by traditional industrial folk song, music hall, and protest ballads, says: “There was a great tradition for women to sing at work in the big factories and the backyard forges, especially music hall songs; their strong melodies and clear narratives having a wide appeal.”
Each song builds up the narrative thread because, Gore explains, “this story could get very involved, with the rates of pay and difficult negotiations. Drama can get quite entrenched in that. It’s more important to get a sense of how people respond to events. If we achieve it, great!”
The 10-week strike at the heart of the story was extraordinary in several ways. The women, up to 1,000 of them, worked in small forges, usually in cramped outhouses next to their homes, often accompanied by their babies and young children.
They were isolated, largely illiterate, and preyed upon by middlemen commissioned by the bosses to give the women piecework. When Macarthur first visited Cradley Heath, she wrote: “The red glow of the forge fires and the dim shadows of the chainmakers made me think of some torture chamber of the Middle Ages.”
Also a suffragist, Macarthur not only used leaflets and pamphlets in the cause but also cinema, the new media of her day. She coaxed Pathe News to show a short film of the women working in grim conditions and it was watched by 10 million people.
Part of the delight of this small company’s theatrical experiences is the dynamic between audiences and the players, with the latter operating lights and often selling programmes.
This is especially potent with these stories of working-class struggle and heroism. As the protagonists face their fears, find their courage and rise, we rise with them. There’s an emotional tide in these pieces. Weaving historical facts into a tapestry that’s seamless demands a great deal, of writer, director and composer, as well as the actors and musicians on stage.
Judging by their work so far, I’d say this one will be unmissable.
Rouse, Ye Women! runs at Harrogate Theatre from February 4-9, box office: harrogatetheatre.co.uk and then tours until April 18, details: townsendproductions.org.uk
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