United We Stand

The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool
Townsend Productions
From 25th September to 11th October 2014

Reviewed by Sue Hunter

This musical play is about a gross miscarriage of justice which took place in the early 1970s.

It concerns 24 building workers who were flying pickets in the 1972 building workers' strike. They were framed and three of them convicted for conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray under the Conspiracy Laws of 1875, and three of them were jailed: Des Warren for three years, Ricky Tomlinson for two years, and John McKinsie Jones for nine months.

Having known Desy personally for many years I knew the whole story in detail, but I was a bit nervous about seeing the play on two counts: would it be true to the facts, and would it be a bit earnest or heavy-going.

I needn't have worried: the play was truthful, and hilarious and entertaining from the start, while pulling no punches when it came to the serious struggles the pickets went through.

Des and Ricky are the main characters in the play, but the two actors, Neil Gore, also the writer, and William Fox, play many other parts, including police officers, a judge, and a little old lady!

Using guitar, ukelele and boom box, they sang many original songs, explaining a complex story in an accessible way. The whole style was like music hall – lots of knock-about humour, simple but ingenious set changes, and use of hats and jackets to portray different characters.

Starting with the dangerous and squalid conditions on building sites and the use of the “Lump”, an anti-trade union casual system, we witness angry site meetings, arguments with timid union officials, and the establishment of a committed leadership by Warren and Tomlinson. Eloquent speeches inspire votes for strike action to demand £30 for a 35 hour week.

And so the first ever national strike of building workers begins, and we follow the pickets as they travel round the country, persuading fellow workers to join the strike. These dramatic scenes show how the whole campaign was conducted peacefully: indeed, on 6 September in Shrewsbury, Des was congratulated by the local police chief for the peaceful and orderly way the pickets had behaved, thanks to Des's leadership.

The strike won some of the demands and the men went back to work. Six months later came mass arrests of pickets, accusing them of violence and intimidation during the strike. They were threatened, offered bribes to give false evidence, and pressured by police to admit to non-existing offences. All this is conveyed in a series of short sinister scenes involving Des, Ricky, and several bullying, insinuating police officers.

Mention is made of the political climate at the time: the miners and dockers had won important victories, and the powers-that-be wanted to suppress workers' strength in struggle. So a ruling class conspiracy was set up, organised by the government, police and the building employers.

The way this conspiracy worked is brilliantly and hilariously demonstrated in a scene using puppets, followed by a quiz show about members of the McAlpine family and their long record of being the High Sheriffs of Denbighshire. Workers sing a song called “Framed”, full of witty verses.

The second half is all about the political show trials in Mold and Shrewsbury. Gripping court scenes show how evidence was twisted and invented and the script uses humour to highlight the absurdity of the charges. The final scene involves the sentencing, followed by the speeches from the dock by Ricky and then Des. These are most powerful and moving.

Of course it is impossible to tell the whole story in a play of two hours, but the company and cast did a fantastic job in covering the key events, packed into a hugely enjoyable performance.

A word about the Lantern Theatre: this is a small intimate venue with a great atmosphere and friendly staff. It was an ideal setting for this important work. It encourages audience participation, and provides a welcoming bar.

More information:

The play is still being shown in Liverpool until 11 Oct. at the Lantern Theatre, Blundell St. L1, www.lanterntheatreliverpool.co.uk

For more info about the play, see www.townsendproductions.org.uk

For more information about the application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to overturn the convictions and sentences, visit shrewsbury24campaign.org.uk

An article about the Shrewsbury Pickets appeared in Nerve 10, and is on the website: www.catalystmedia.org.uk/issues/nerve10/shrewsbury_pickets.php

For an in-depth account of the strike, trials, imprisonment and campaigns to free the”Shrewsbury Two” read “The Key to My Cell” by Des Warren. Available at News from Nowhere: newsfromnowhere.org.uk

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