Writer: Ian Kershaw
Director: Amanda Huxtable
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Asked to write a ‘state of the nation play’ for Oldham Coliseum, playwright Ian Kershaw has chosen to look to the past in order to comment on the present. Not the recent past, nor the local, instead, telling the story of the so-called ‘Bread & Roses Strike’ of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It proves an inspired decision; using a little known period in history to illustrate the continuing issues faced today. Despite its setting, the play retains a ‘ripped from the headlines’ feel, even down to children being separated from parents.
‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ was a line in a speech by union leader Rose Schneiderman, adapted into a poem by James Oppenheim in 1911, symbolising workers right to enjoy more than just the basic necessities for survival. Kershaw’s Bread & Roses draws heavily on the true facts of the strike, following the people of Lawrence, who shut down the cotton mill where they work in protest at the owner cutting their pay after the introduction of a new law on working hours.
Just as it was the women of Lawrence at the heart of the strike, it is the female characters who make up the heart of the play, particularly Lucy-Rose Atkins who becomes the voice of the community. Emma Naomi as Atkins has just the right balance of warmth and steely conviction; it is easy to see why the others rally behind her.
The 1912 strike was also referred to as ‘The Singing Strike’ and therefore music is placed at the heart of Bread & Roses, with songs of the period by Joe Hill performed to an extremely high standard by the cast of actor-musicans. With sound design by Lorna Munden and musical direction from Howard Gray, the arrangements are stunning and vocals crystal clear. Tupele Dorgu opens the play with a haunting version of Auld Lang Syne and Claire Burns’ superb solos in Act Two manage to sound both fragile and powerful. When the full ensemble sing together the sound is stirring and inspiring and will stay with you long after leaving the auditorium.
Encompassing the reasons for the walkout, a romance or two, murder, corruption and political scheming Bread & Roses covers a lot and it is perhaps inevitable that the resolution to the strike itself feels a little rushed. Kershaw ultimately brings things up to date, with Burns delivering a passionate speech that highlights the parallels between the play and the current political and social climate. Although warmly received by the audience it is arguably unnecessary; Kershaw should have more confidence that the preceding play communicates this message clearly anyway.
Bread & Roses feels like an ambitious production in every way; from Kate Unwin’s detailed set design to the large ensemble cast which is further bolstered by a chorus to fill the stage. Moving and compelling, with a rousing, deeply evocative score, Bread & Roses is a unique piece of theatre that deserves a future life and a wider audience.
Runs until 7th July 2018 | Image: Contributed