Writer: Neil Gore
Director: Louise Townsend
Music: John Kirkpatrick
Designer: Amy Yardley
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Townsend Productions’ robustly imaginative brand of agitprop always combines a serious left-wing message with irreverent satire and an infectious sense of fun. United We Stand, now playing its last few dates following 2015’s extended tour, is part of the ongoing campaign on behalf of the Shrewsbury 24. The evening ends with writer/actor/musician Neil Gore updating the audience on the fight against injustice now that the case is being reviewed over 40 years on. However, such earnestness is not typical of the performance which takes its tone just as much from Gore and fellow-actor William Fox’s pre-play banter with the audience.
The Shrewsbury 24 were flying pickets – in 1972before the tactic was made illegal – during the building workers’ strike against poor pay and working conditions and the pernicious influence of “The Lump”. The police were present at the demonstration in question and, at the time, congratulated the pickets’ leaders on their good behaviour. Months later, to their astonishment, they were charged with conspiracy and affray. This led to suspicions of government involvement: papers have still not been released. The longest prison sentences, three and two years respectively, were passed on Des Warren and Eric Tomlinson, now much better known as Ricky Tomlinson, the actor.
Louise Townsend’s production utilises a variety of narrative methods. Gore and Fox play Tomlinson and Warren straight, at times using their own words. They also play any number of other characters – from police to barristers to union officials – with varying degrees of caricature, also making their point with primitive puppetry and a parody of grotesque game shows. The didactic comedy of “The Great Conspiracy” calls to mind the style of “The Great Money Trick” in Townsend’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
The songs too, with musical direction by John Kirkpatrick, are essential to the narrative and the political message. Old favourite You Don’t Get Me, I’m Part of the Union rubs shoulders with a splendid reworking of Hard Times of Old England and plenty of new songs, notably a jauntily bitter summary of what’s legal and what isn’t, most of them accompanied by guitar or ukulele and percussion.
The production has an air of improvisation, with basic props and the use of an overhead projector to fill some of the narrative gaps with images and film from the time. The results can hardly be said to be polished, but Gore and Fox cover with amiable professionalism when problems occur.
Perhaps the performance in Doncaster may have been a case of preaching to the converted, but the endlessly resourceful and clearly committed cast of two build a remarkable rapport with the audience. After all the clowning and jollity of some of the earlier scenes, the stark presentation of extracts from the trial ends the laughs and the shouts of solidarity and brings the play to a sombre conclusion.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed