Writer: Neil Gore
Director: Louise Townsend
Designer: Carl Davies
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Townsend Theatre Productions are a rare and wonderful thing, taking self-written, committed and consistently entertaining plays on left-wing subjects, mostly union-related, on the road for mammoth tours. If the tours are mammoth in terms of duration, the production is always small-scale in terms of the impedimenta of theatre touring. Neil Gore writes the play and acts in it with one other; self-accompanied songs carry the message, often with audience participation; the set can fit in theatres and community halls alike and is designed to reinforce meaning, not look nice; the cast sell programmes and chat to the audience.
We Are the Lions, Mr Manager takes as its subject the Grunwick strike of 1976-78 when workers at the film processing plant in North London took action against the bullying of management, notably in terms of compulsory overtime without warning, and the refusal to allow union membership. By the time the strike had run its course, supportive trade unionists from elsewhere, including NUM members, had clashed with police, helping to strengthen Margaret Thatcher’s resolve to break union power, and Grunwick’s owners had simply refused to act on the recommendations of a formal inquiry headed by Lord Scarman, ushering in the age of unfettered capitalism. The positive effect of Grunwick was that most of the strikers were Asian women (“strikers in saris”, in the cliché of the time) and it helped to build both self-respect and respect from others for a neglected group.
The leader of the strike was an East African Asian, born in Gujerat in India, Jayaben Desai. She is very much the focus of We Are the Lions: fellow-strikers do not appear, though there is a sympathetic portrayal of Jack Dromey, then of the Brent Trades Council, helpful, sympathetic, but ultimately ineffective. So the play begins unusually for a Townsend production. Instead of two chaps exchanging banter, bashing the ukulele or banjo and putting the audience at ease, we have a monologue from the newly arrived Mrs. Desai, about her thoughts on England and the songs, dances and political activities of life in Gujerat.
We miss the role-swapping, instrument-switching, quasi-improvisatory hurly-burly of Townsend Productions at their best. Fortunately, there is a remarkable performance from Medhavi Patel to compensate. Briefly, she takes on the role of George Ward, owner of Grunwick, in one of Gore/Townsend’s less successful comedy caricature scenes, but pretty much throughout she is Jayaden Desai – and thrillingly so, fiercely independent, committed to freedom, fearing no one, terrifyingly eloquent, a firebrand with dignity. The script makes intelligent use of her own words; she clearly used words to inspiring effect despite her claims that her English was not good.
Neil Gore sings the songs, notably American folk singer/activist Jack Warshaw’s Hold the Line Again, composed for Grunwick and here constantly reprised to great effect. He also plays most of the men in support of, or opposition to, Jayaben Desai, most memorably Malcolm Alden, the manager, a sort of sinister David Brent.
Touring nationwide | Image: Paul Sandy