DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Rouse Ye Women! – Harrogate Theatre

Writer: Neil Gore

Song Writer/MD: John Kirkpatrick

Director: Louise Townsend

Designer: Elizabeth Wright

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

To an extent we know what to expect of a Townsend Theatre production. With the wonderful exception of the fictional Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it will be based on a significant moment in the class struggle, usually a key piece of union activity; it will be informal in staging, simple and flexible enough for one-night showings in arts centres and union halls; it will feature Neil Gore in multiple roles as writer, actor, singer and musician, sharing the stage generally with one other actor and with John Kirkpatrick writing and arranging the music.

It’s a uniformly powerful, thought-provoking and disarmingly entertaining mix, with one foot in the picket lines and the other in the music hall or the folk club. In many ways Rouse Ye Women! is a typical Townsend production, but yet fundamentally different, as suggested by its description as “a folk ballad opera”. 

Rouse Ye Women! deals with the strike of women chainmakers at Cradley Heath in the Black Country in 1910. While their menfolk, unionised and adequately paid, were making heavy chain in factories for such projects as the Titanic’s anchor, women made light chain in backyard outhouses, at the mercy of “foggers” who doled out the work and set the prices. Enter trade union activist and suffragist Mary Macarthur who organised the women so effectively that the Liberal government speedily passed the Trade Boards Act, but many employers deliberately dragged their feet on implementing the new minimum wage and it took a lock-out and a strike before the union, The National Federation of Women Workers, triumphed.

The “opera” shifts the balance away from acted drama towards song, partly, no doubt, because this is a simple tale of workers’ triumph, with no strong male characters to set beside Mary Macarthur and Bird, the chainmaker – this time the production runs to three actors/singers. There are only four dialogue scenes, two between Bird and her fogger, an essentially weak character, one dealing with the first meeting of Bird and Macarthur and one where Macarthur runs rings around the Secretary of the Chain Manufacturers Association. Neil Gore finds himself as the ineffectual male, wriggling and pleading as both his characters, but has the consolation of delivering a fine poetic prologue and getting out banjo, guitar and mandolin to accompany a terrific set of songs.

Whether composed or adapted by John Kirkpatrick, the songs convey the privations of the outworkers vividly before settling into a rousing vein of militancy followed by triumph. The Trade Boards Act (not the most charismatic of song titles) and Stick Up for the Women frame the interval with powerful, audience-involving songs and the title song bursts with life.

Bryony Purdue is outstanding as Mary Macarthur, her crystalline singing revealing her background in opera, her characterisation, with its softly self-confident educated Scots pronunciation, suggesting the distance between her middle-class background and the workers, but with no lessening of her commitment to the cause. Rowan Godel is a straightforwardly independent Bird, handling some of the folkier song material well and counterpointing Purdue’s singing superbly in several numbers.

Elizabeth Wright gives Rouse Ye Women! a more site-specific setting than most Townsend productions, a yard and an outhouse, but much of the key action takes place at Mary’s desk and on a soapbox. Daniella Beattie and Jo Dawson’s clever lighting and projections enlarge the visual impact of a production that has to be packed up nightly and then re-assembled, possibly in your local library.

Touring nationwide | Image: Mic Lowe

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