Orson Welles famously once said “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, and they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.” In other words, violent and corrupt governments produce an atmosphere where, by necessity, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary and art can flourish. It’s rather a glib comment, as I’m not sure the Sistine Chapel entirely makes up for everyone who lost their lives under the Borgia/Medici reign of terror.
But, I don’t think anyone could argue that over the years the exploits of the British ruling class has given more than enough impetus for ordinary men to do extraordinary things and has given plenty of inspiration for artists to boot. Neil Gore’s United We Stand chronicles once such injustice: the 1972 Builder’s strike and the political and judicial wrongdoing that followed. In which 24 builders from North Wales were arrested and three were later imprisoned (most famously the actor Ricky Tomlinson) for the crime of ‘conspiracy’ and inciting violence during the controversial ‘Flying Pickets’.
Gore’s play is engaging and immersive. Not in the least because how it presents its narrative is not immediately what you might expect when you consider the source material. The play is in a certain sense a musical. The music and sound design play a key role in the establishment of mood and are an effectively used for the necessary ‘information dump’ to help those who don’t know a great deal about the strike or whose memory could use a refresher. I had no idea what ‘the lump’ was in relation to the construction industry or building regulations. But, after one jaunty tune of the guitar I felt up to speed.
However, the music has a much more profound impact on the piece than just a convenient way of dispensing information. Nearly all the songs performed in the show have been adapted and rewritten from popular pop songs. So much so they take on the resemblance of football anthems. Indeed many of the songs used in United We Stand were also used to tell the story of Liverpool Football club in The Official Story of Liverpool FC which ran for a three night special at the Echo arena last month. The result of this is a feeling of authenticity. You sense that these songs are representative of working class people who were affected by the economic and working conditions of the 1970s, and who no doubt were singing versions of them to support their team of choice every weekend.
This feeling of authenticity runs throughout the show. It’s very much a ‘muck in’ piece. The two actors (the play is a double header) playing multiple characters (the change between characters can be so rapid at times that you lose track of whose playing who) .The staging is very simple, but, versatile with the actors carrying out most of the ‘scene changes’. This is greatly supported by the use of projection that gives a better visual representation of the time period. As such, you are left with a feeling of being ‘in the trenches’. As if you could be really watching the ill-fated workers, talking in backrooms and public meetings as they try to fight for their rights.
Happily this is balanced out with a good dose of satire. As the aforementioned music is accompanied with poetry readings and a sleazy game show style rundown of the various personnel and systems of power that all collude together to make an example of the ‘Shrewsbury 24’. To essentially ensure picketing did not continue to be a useful (and lawful) tool of protest. The play is performed with great zeal and passion by Gore and his fellow actor William Fox. In the end you are left with righteous indignation at the treatment of these men and the hands of government and big business you. But, like many awful things it does make for a great night of theatre.
United We Stand is currently on at The Lantern Theatre until 11th October. But, will soon be heading on a national tour.