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

Reviewed by Jeremy Hawthorn

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.

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