United We Stand is a new play telling the story of Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson (yes, the Ricky Tomlinson) and the Shrewsbury 24, who were prosecuted in 1973 after their arrest during the builders’ strike the summer before. Warren, Tomlinson and one other member of the 24 were jailed. Their supporters are still campaigning to overturn what they believe was a miscarriage of justice, and thanks to their hard work uncovering new evidence, the case is due to be reviewed – and, they hope, quashed – by the Court of Appeal.
Townsend Productions’ previous plays have included a version of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and We Will Be Free – The Tolpuddle Martyrs story. And like them, United We Stand is a two-hander performed by actor-musicians William Fox and Neil Gore (who also wrote the piece), a combination of drama, documentary footage, satirical sketches and song. There is also an accompanying exhibition.
The play keeps things firmly in the period – although not really long ago, in the 60s and 70s, despite massive profits being made by the companies in charge, builders’ working conditions were dangerous, and pay, cash in hand, was poor, leading to the unrest and eventual strikes as a bid to make things safer and more legitimate.
Gore and Fox convincingly take us back, from the polyester trousers to the rabble rousing protest songs (folk scene stalwart John Kirkpatrick is the musical director). I loved designer Amy Yardley’s clever set, which transformed the scaffolding of the yards into pub back-rooms.
As the events United We Stand is based on slip ever further into history, there is something genuinely affecting about this passionately-performed and intelligent call to remember, and stand up for justice. It doesn’t just take place in another time, but practically a whole other Britain, so there’s a bit of a danger of seeing things through rose-tinted specs. But the good-natured performances see it through – as a piece of drama and as part of a grass-roots campaign it is dignified without being preachy. The last time I can remember seeing something on stage that brought an audience together in such a way, it was an evening with Tony Benn and Roy Bailey at the Phil.
United We Stand is absorbing, informative (perhaps to the point of overload, if you are not previously familiar with the story), entertaining – the musical hall satire of the conspiracy of government and building companies is absolutely spot on – and moving.
Catch it at the Lantern until October 11 or on tour.