“That’s the second time it’s made me cry,” said the man standing next to me at the urinal. An odd opening gambit, I thought, were we not in the gents at Oldham Coliseum. “I came on Saturday and I’m coming again next week,” he continued. He was clearly a glutton for an inspiring weepy, and Bread & Roses is that kind of show.
Ian Kershaw has written a play with songs – not a musical, I think, because the songs are pretty much all declamatory rather than personal expressions of feeling. Based on the true story of a mill workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, the dispute was a textbook example of the contradiction between the interests of Capital and Labour. The lengths to which the employers went to protect their interests are as shocking as they are predictable, even in these days. And they make a good play.
The cast of eight are terrific, and are extremely well supported by ten local amateurs who double in all sorts of roles. There is also a child, who on the night I saw it was completely convincing and very charming. But it’s the music that gets you. Played and sung by the cast, as a non-muso I thought ‘why aren’t you all famous?’ The quality of the musicianship is outstanding, and apart from a couple of traditional numbers, the songs are contemporary to the story. They were written by Joe Hill, a member of the IWW, the union that organised the strike, which was also known as the Singing Strike because the strikers sang those songs as they marched. Joe knew how to write a stirring ditty. I very nearly stood up and joined in, despite the tears in my eyes.
Kershaw says in a programme note – a really good informative programme by the way – that the Coliseum asked him to write a play about things that are happening now, and that he wanted to write about the personal consequences of the appalling wealth gap in the UK, the iniquity that is Universal Credit and so on, but he also needed to give us a good night out. So he chose to write a play “about hope, about looking after each other and doing what’s right”. He has succeeded. It’s a great night out, and I urge you to have it. I’m not sure we need the final curtain speech, but you can be the judge of that.
By chance I met the director Amanda Huxtable at the bar in the interval, which is where any good director should be, calming their nerves – it shows they care. Amanda is one of a small number of women of colour directing in UK theatre, and we had an animated conversation about whether this kind of theatre was any good at changing minds, and can theatre do that at all, and what should theatre be doing? I haven’t had such an invigorating conversation with a director since I shared an office with the late Annie Castledine. I’m delighted to say that my esteemed Editor here at Northern Soul has asked me to do a profile on Amanda so not only do I get to meet her again, but I also get to go back and see the show, and cry a second time, too.
Photos by Joel Chester Fildes
Bread and Roses is on until July 7, 2018. For more information, click here.