Grunwick, 1976-1978 – pickets: small pickets, large pickets, mass pickets, flying pickets. Police brutality. Yes, Grunwick was an industrial dispute on an industrial scale.
So how do you successfully tell the tale of this momentous event – the strike went on for nearly a hundred weeks – with all the mass meetings, and the crowds of supporters and the brigades of police and the infiltrators and the agent provocateurs and the Special Patrol Group (I’d forgotten all about that notorious band) – with just two actors? Yep, just two. Well if you have Townsend Productions on the case there is no need to worry because its highly specialised skill is to tell politically charged stories with unerring historical accuracy via a duo who take on all the different roles. And – as usual – with a little help from the audience.
Writer Neil Gore, is, as ever, one of the two performers. Gore is a one-man casting directory – whatever specialist role in the theatre you require he’ll be up for it. Playwright, actor, performer, musician, LX operator, sound man – in this show – whilst other strings to his bow include director of touring shows and panto, set designer and builder, one-man- show wallah and I bet he makes a mean cup of tea to boot – he’s just one of those blokes.
With what could be a fairly dry subject, music becomes the key to the narrative. The show is regularly interspersed with folksy numbers (usual Townsend muso John Kirkpatrick is MD) that give us info, set moods and even has us singing along with the chorus. In some respects its Brechtian in feel though more accurate would be to say it’s “Townsendesque” – a term that does not feature in the pantheon of theatrical nomenclature. Yet. The music lets us in, helps us to be there and gives us a warm feeling of taking part in the story rather than being preached at. Inevitably Gore plays all the instruments (albeit one at a time!) including guitar (acoustic), ukulele, squeeze-box and another guitar (electric). Here we see Gore in real entertainer mode: he’s in his element and on top of his game.
Audience involvement (rather than “participation”) is a crucial ingredient to Townsend productions so it wouldn’t be a bona fide Townsend show without props being distributed to everyone for help with a particular moment. Here we are provided with key-ring torches to assist in setting the mood in one of the more downbeat songs which we all dutifully hold high and wave around as the lights dim. It’s not quite Glasto but you get the picture; and it’s a nice moment where the warm feeling permeates once again.
One of Gore’s USP’s is the ability to intertwine humour into the serious subject he is depicting. Thus we have comic elements in some of the songs and a whole series of characters who make us laugh. Brash dotard Manager, Malcolm Alden, comes across as an entirely plausible cartoon character, Jack Dromey, the current MP who during Grunwick was a young Union Convenor, is eager to please and fuelled by a laid-back dry humour whilst John Gourier of the anti-Union National Association For Freedom – yes that existed back then, pre-Thatcher – is a humorously sinister Victorian-style melodrama villain complete with manic laughter. Gore flits in and out of these and other characters with consummate ease, aided by swift costume changes whilst interspersing his musical turns and keeping up his regular patter with the audience reacting to them as it reacts to him.
And while Gore paints this animated backdrop of fact, humour and music he creates the space for his co-performer to shine. Jayaben Desai was the inspirational lady who defied the establishment and led the strike and here she is played by Medhavi Patel. What a performance. Intense, powerful, forthright and passionate with perceptive insight, Patel grabs hold of our sense of injustice, gets us rooting for her cause and wins over our hearts. Her impassioned speeches on the picket line underline Desai’s constant refrain of “I fear nobody” and her reasoned responses and deftly deployed wit make this a truly multi-dimensional character. One thing is certain, given roles to play Patel has a very bright future.
Pulling all this together with detached eye and adept touch is director Louise Townsend. This kind of rolling panorama of documentary realism created through music and extremely clever staging – including use of contemporary video footage – is very much Townsend’s speciality. Narrative through character is the company’s watchword and it’s clear that Townsend and Gore, who have worked together on multiple productions, know what each other is thinking before they actually think it. It’s an inspired partnership enhanced by the introduction of Patel to the mix. It must difficult to bring in someone new to an already well-established partnership but, frankly, the addition is seamless, so well does Patel buy into the company’s mission.
So we have an entertaining show that is actually a valuable historical document depicting a tumultuous event that had a significant impact on how industrial relations developed over the following decades. This is theatre that is worth experiencing and it’s an important contribution to understanding how politics defines our lives.
Review by Peter Yates
The women became known as the “strikers in saris” and their fight for fair treatment was supported by thousands of trade unionists and campaigners as more than 20,000 people joined them at the picket lines on one of the mass pickets.
But the story of the Grunwick dispute is not just a story about ground-breaking solidarity. It is also the story of a remarkable woman, Jayaben Desai.
The 4ft 10in mother-of-two defiantly led the first walk-out in protest against the humiliation she and other women employees felt at the Grunwick factory.
As she left, the manager shouted at Jayaben and her colleagues to “stop chattering like monkeys in a zoo”, and Jayaben replied: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager!”
Jayaben became the leader of the Grunwick Strike and not only stood up for workers’ rights with selfless dedication, but with her steadfast resolve, she turned the dispute into a national movement for human rights, inspiring future generations and challenging the way people perceived Asian women.
Now, Jayaben’s story is being brought to life for the very first time by Townsend Theatre Productions seeking to relive the strikers’ inspirational fight for freedom, equality and human dignity.
Written by Neil Gore, the play will tell the story of the Grunwick dispute through a mixture of stirring song, poetry, movement and dance, and the play will utilise Townsend Production’s trademark cast of two actors playing multiple roles.
The role of Jayaben Desai will be played by Medhavi Patel, who is a distant relative of the inspirational leader.
Townsend Theatre Productions presents the world premiere of
WE ARE THE LIONS, MR MANAGER!
A new play by Neil Gore
Director: Louise Townsend
Designer: Carl Davies
Lighting Designer: Daniella Beattie
Music Director: John Kirkpatrick
UK tour: 14 October 2017 – 15 April 2018
For more information visit www.townsendproductions.org.uk