Tom Mann and the Liverpool Transport Strikes
Written by John Fay
Performed by 100th Meridian Theatre Company
The Casa, Hope Street
14th to 16th November and again on 30th November 2011
I first saw this play 20 years ago courtesy of Kirkby Response Theatre
and it was good then. Now, in strike centenary year, there's a new dynamic.
Dad (Simon Wynship) surprises Lad (Jay Podmore) and Friends who've just
got in from the riots. He'll let them keep the looted telly if they check
out Tom Mann on the history channel....
And so the 1911 story begins, with six actors playing about 56 parts.
The storyline is simple and accurate: Liverpool seamen are fed up with
low wages and oppressive conditions. They want to strike but need support.
A rousing hip-bone-thigh-bone song unveils the National Transport Workers
Federation (founded in, yes, Liverpool, 1 June 1911).
But who is to lead the strike? Enter the moustache of Tom Mann (worn
by Saul Murphy). The strike starts and the solidarity is immediate. The
Pointer arrives in harbour from Glasgow but
no one will unload it until strikers are reinstated. Soon the shipowners
in their colour-coded top hats are queueing up to offer concessions.
So far so good until EXTRA! EXTRA!, on charges the newsboy (Jane Hartley)
to tell us the dockers are out as well. It's back to the drawing-boards
for the shipowners and they quickly agree a full-scale settlement. And
they all lived happily ever EXTRA! EXTRA! Now a marching song brings the
rail workers out and Tom Mann (a little reluctantly) agrees to lead them
in the absence of union support.
The stakes are raised with imported police (Phil Perez) and troops (Richard
Pitt). The plastic truncheon and bendy bayonets are a joke to begin with
but the mood gradually becomes more sombre. Some careful homework has
gone into gathering the details of some of the hundreds who were arrested
and jailed. Bloody Sunday and the shooting of two men on the Vauxhall
Road are told through a ballad with haunting chorus
Boys, don't do it
Don't you obey
Don't shoot at the strikers
It may be you one day
There are lively moments even here. A loaf of bread is torn apart on
stage as a van (a hat actually) is looted. The policeman invites the crowd
to attack another van (hat) over there as well but no, it is 'under the
auspices of the Strike Committee' so they leave it alone.
Amid all the chaos Churchill with his cigar often comes into view and
in the play's final and least convincing scene muses to General Macready
that we really need a more organised ruling class.
'So what did you find out?' asks Dad. Lad can now recite all these events,
but looks downcast when Dad asks what the youth of today will do. Then
suddenly Friend stands up and that Tom Mann moustache reassures us that
the next generation will be as combative as the last.
The whole play is a great combination of pantomime and historical drama.
The plot moves quickly and all the parts are acted out with no scenery,
a minimum of props and with just some pictures from the Nerve
presentation (let's claim some credit here) as background. I hope it won't
be another 20 years before we see it again.