A febrile air of hope and opportunity runs through most of United We Stand – a dramatic exploration of the 1972 building workers’ strike and subsequent jailings. Set against glam rock and rank-and-file radicalisation, the play explores how builders’ anger about pay, safety and casualisation pushed them to spread their strike action – often in defiance of their union’s hierarchies.
Not that the play – written and performed by Neil Gore and produced by Townsend Productions – blanches from some of the conflict’s less comfortable aspects; activist-organised coach-loads of flying pickets trying to persuade non-striking builders to join them in encounters that sometimes involved volleys of flying bricks.
The reason that the story retains its notoriety, however, is the trail of lay strike leaders who attempted to spread their action around North Wales and Shropshire. Months after the strike had been settled, a high-profile Police investigation led to the trial of 24 strikers, on various, generally obscure, changes. The most serious of these was ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ – an offence for which no one had been tried for 92 years. Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren were convicted and sentenced to two and three years incarceration respectively.
The case of the ‘Shrewsbury Two’ had a moment as a labour movement cause célèbre, but was largely forgotten before the protagonists had returned to freedom. Gore and fellow performer William Fox make a deft job of what might be stodgy subject matter. Pantomime techniques, cod gangsta rap and songs, evoking everything from The Sweet to Ewan McColl, keep the show bowling along. Donning judicial wigs as their tale reached its denouement, however, they evoked a legal system working against ordinary people and reasonable principles of justice that left a chill in the auditorium.
With each of them taking on multiple roles, their jukebox of regional lilts was overambitious. Both are impressive physical performers, however, whose abilities to express character by way of ambulatory ticks more than compensated for wandering Scouse accents.
‘Radical theatre’ is often guilty of dressing up familiar tropes simply to entertain audiences of true believers. Save that the Shrewsbury Two is a coming issue – the case is currently being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission – United We Stand is susceptible to this charge. With a Trades Union Bill before Parliament that is designed to frustrate strikes and add complicated legal strictures to picketing, however, this is more than a throwback to the era of platform soles and aircraft-carrier lapels.
The campaign against this legislation appears, however, to have been characterised by union leaders huffing and puffing about defying its provisions, if enacted. Perhaps the real lesson of the United We Stand is that unless there is a determined strategy to take a message beyond the approving fold of ‘the movement’ there is every chance that the public won’t even notice? If we allow that to happen, then the prospect of pickets being jailed on questionable charges will be quickly stripped of its period ornamentation.
I saw the last performance of this show at Peckham’s Bussey Building. The play tours northern England later this year.