Cable Street- Southwark Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Issy Flower

Music and Lyrics: Tim Gilvin

Book: Alex Kanefsky

Director: Adam Lenson

The Battle of Cable Street is currently having a small theatrical moment, likely due to its unfortunately still relevant features of antisemitism, the need for tolerance and the difficulty of fighting fascism. At the Criterion currently, Tracy-Ann Oberman is Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 1936 while Tim Gilbin and Alex Kanefsky have made a musical of the period. The conflict between the people of the East End and Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts in 1936 becomes reframed as a rallying cry for community, as diverse in its casting and score as in its message.

The bulk of the play is set during 1936, although framed in a modern-day walking tour context that allows for some extra context and comedy and follows three characters: Mairaid (Sha Dessi), an Irish baker and activist; Sammy (Joshua Ginsberg), a Jewish ex-boxer; and Ron (Danny Colligan), an unemployed Northerner who is slowly infected with Moseley’s poisonous rhetoric. Amongst them swarm a diverse group of characters from Blackshirts to bitter-drinkers, all ably conveyed by the 11-strong cast, with particular standouts being Jez Unwin’s exceptional range, Ethan Pascal Peters’ often righteous anger and Jade Johnson’s moving eleventh-hour number.

The score, too, has intense range, although sometimes too much for its own good, as diverse musical genres butt up against one another. From rap to music hall, Irish drinking song to near Les Misérables pastiche, it’s a whirlwind of styles and kudos to Gilbin and Kanefsky for holding onto the plot amongst the storm. Although sometimes there’s a welcome tripping up of musical expectations – as when Mairaid undercuts a traditional Irish drinking song to search for something ‘further from Dublin’ – it can also feel like these styles have been chucked into a blender for no real dramaturgical reason, but rather just as a writing exercise.

Some songs could be easily dropped, and the script could do with tightening. At the same time, numbers such as No Pasarán are as stimulating and moving as anything from the wider musical theatre catalogue, whilst others such as Bread and Roses could easily become standards. It’s only that they sometimes feel lost amongst the deluge of pastiche.

Regardless, Cable Street is an excellent demonstration of the health of the new British musical with a talented cast and an exciting, moving score. It taps into a vital, powerful moment in British history with humour and flair, and it’ll be interesting to see how far this little musical can go in years to come.

Runs until 16 March 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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