Gem of a Place – The Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: BOLDText Playwrights

Director: Jennifer Davis

Despite the decline of the British jewellery industry in the 20th century, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter still produces around 40% of all jewellery made in the UK. At its peak, it employed over 30000 people. The area is now recreating itself as a hub for creative business alongside the traditional manufacture of jewellery, with several disused premises serving as museums.

BOLDtext Playwrights is a collective of eight professional writers who aim to create new work to celebrate and reflect the region. Gem of a Place is a promenade piece taking place in six locations in the Jewellery Quarter. While the individual pieces draw on the history and traditions of the area, the pieces are more eclectic, some reflecting on the changes taking place as the area continues to evolve, some celebrating local characters or past events, others dealing with moral issues.

As the audience is assembled, we discover that our role today is to be trainee couriers; we are to learn the route as we walk our delivery route. Playing our enthusiastic guide is Aizah Khan, supported by a small youthful community cast. She herds us through most of the show, and feeds titbits of historical information as we go. She’s careful, however, not to make this a heavy historical quest, and there’s plenty of humour along the way too.

Our first scene, near the famous Chamberlain Clock, sees Sam Butters and Adaya Henry struggling to see where their future might lie – if, indeed, there is a ‘they’ to have a future. Helped by the clock, they come to a consensus. Moving on we meet Deborah Tracey, demonstrating an investment opportunity as another building becomes available for conversion to luxury flats. She’s disturbed by memories of a past love, Graeme Rose, who is playing Errol Flynn in a commercial and certainly looks the dapper part. Desperate to reignite the spark, can he convince her too?

Moving on, we encounter an interesting concept as Henry and Butters play two teachers who meet across the time divide, she from 1917, he from the present. Not only do we get to contrast teaching styles (Henry’s quizzical ‘Why not?’ when Butters explains that we no longer beat children is a terrific moment), but also learn of how a local girl who might have been written off overcame adversity to become acclaimed author, Kathleen Dayus. After Dayus’ death, Albion Square, our current location, was renamed Dayus Square in her honour.

Moving indoors into a disused jewellery factory, we find Rose playing the last surviving jeweller in residence who seeks to maintain the tradition. Rose’s performance here is quite superb in its honesty and close observation. Later, we are transported to the late 19th century when the Jewellery Quarter produced nibs for three-quarters of the world’s pens. The knowledge that all American schoolchildren completed their work using nibs stamped ‘Made in Birmingham’ was certainly cause for pride, but the girls who worked to make them were badly treated. Tracey brings us a powerful speech appealing to the workers to unionise. And they did, becoming a force to be reckoned with.

The final piece sees Khan and Henry playing a couple slightly at odds. Khan is an athlete with a rich uncle – he owns a gold mine in India – who feels that she cannot, in good faith, accept gold or other gifts from him until he treats his workers better. The irony that she is training and aiming for gold (and only gold) in her chosen discipline is not lost on her partner, who takes a rather more pragmatic view. The dialogue here is maybe a little more stilted than elsewhere, albeit still telling an effective story.

Gem of a Place is an interesting and sometimes intellectually challenging piece. Stand-out moments include Rose’s jeweller and Henry’s 1917 teacher, but there are no weak links. Well worth breaking out the waterproofs to see.

Runs Until 18 September 2022

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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