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Theatre review Rising like lions to change labour history

PETER FROST sees a magnificent play on the Grunwick strike which highlights its lasting impact on the union movement

We Are the Lions, Mr Manager!
The Place, Bedford

AUGUST 20 1976 marked the end of one of the longest and hottest weeks on record in a scruffy factory in Willesden, north-west London.

The diminutive, sari-clad Jayaben Desai was clocking off after an exhausting week and, as she left, the management racist abuse started up and she was urged to: “Stop chattering like monkeys in a zoo.”

Desai had had enough. “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo,” she snapped back. “But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off.

“We are the lions, Mr Manager!”

Hence the title of this new play which, as a reviewer, I approached with some trepidation. The Grunwick strike, written out of history, is one I was close to, having being brought up less than five minutes’ walk from the Grunwick picket lines.

How would it deal with some of the attitudes to the strikers that came from parts of the established labour and trade union movement of the 1970s? Misogynistic and even racist views had been ugly aspects of the dispute.

But writer Neil Gore — one of the two performers in the play directed by Louise Townsend — and his team have both the skills and the political nous to deal with the issues. His previous plays on The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the International Brigade during the Spanish civil war are proof of that.

What Gore has produced is a joyful celebration of one of the most significant disputes in the history of our entire labour movement and the production’s specially written union songs will be sung on picket lines for years to come.

Along with poetry, movement and dance and a masterful performance by Medhavi Patel as Desai, the play tells a really inspiring story.

It highlights the role of the rank-and-file post office trade unionists, who stopped Grunwick’s mail deliveries, and groups like the miners who often swelled the picket lines to thousands, while the right-wing Labour government and the TUC sought to undermine and devalue the strike.

It also tells of the ultra-right-wing Tories who used every sort of legal and illegal strategy to defeat the strikers.

Grunwick would become one of the longest and most important industrial disputes in British history and changed the way trade unions thought about race and new immigrant communities coming to Britain in the 1970s. That battle has still to be won.

Desai had a favourite saying: “Freedom is like honey on your elbow, you can see it, you can smell it, but you can never taste it.”

Get along to see this play and taste the honey. It’s touring 50 venues all over Britain in the coming months and it’s not to be missed.

Tour details:


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