Rid the World

Written by Rob Johnston, Directed by Ed Barrett
Breathe Out Theatre
Unity Theatre, 17th - 19th March 2011

Reviewed by Jeremy Hawthorn

This play does justice to Liverpool's 1911 transport strikes. It's a simple plot, the good guys win and there are no plastic Scouse accents or offensive stereotypes. Rob Johnston's adaptation of Trevor Griffiths’ Such Impossibilities is humane, funny at times and (thank heavens) pretty accurate. Breathe Out Theatre opened this at the Lowry in Salford on 10 February. They tour Northern England before coming to the Unity on 17 to 19 March.

Hugo Chandor plays Tom Mann, a national labour activist invited to Liverpool to lead a seamen’s strike. With a wry sense of humour he brings a new inspiration to militant workers who would otherwise be sold out by union boss and Parliamentary wannabe James Sexton (Anthony Crank).

The seamen come out and the stewards soon after. The big shipping lines concede but the Shipping Federation doesn’t. Cuthbert Laws (Andrew Sykes) and Charles Cavendish (Lewis Marsh) represent the ruling class who are far from united and Mann, ever the negotiator, plays them off against each other. The employers have one side of the uncluttered stage and the strike committee (with James Jowett and Amy Spencer in fine supporting roles) occupy the other.

The dispute looks to be quickly resolved until the dockers in the form of John Milligan (George actually, played by Andrew Roberts-Palmer) make their own demands. Even the Strike Committee are taken by surprise and there is a brief stand-off before they are included in negotiations.

Next the railwaymen come out and the entire city shuts down. A massive rally is brutally attacked by the police. Still no one goes back until everyone is reinstated on better wages.

In a final scene Tom Mann is imprisoned for publishing a leaflet that urges soldiers not to fire on striking workers. This is the only moment of dramatic licence: yes the leaflet was written in Liverpool and yes he was imprisoned for it but not until the following year and in Salford. However, it stands as a reminder that the ruling class do not give up readily.

The play has a political tale to tell but you come away with a feel for the characters as well as the story. There are some nice interactions within and between the different camps including this friendly exchange between Cuthbert Laws and Tom Mann:

"Why do you do this Mr Mann?"
"To rid the world of people like you"

Unfortunately the 1911 strikes did not rid the world of people like them. But Tom Mann's Strike Committee gave them a fright.

Stand Together, Stand as One, We Strike for Liberty.
Get to see this at the Unity.

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