Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre (****)
Jonathan Church is certainly going out with a bang. In this his swan song season, one success keeps following another. Over the ten years Church and his Executive Director Alan Finch have been in charge, it’s not just the choices they have made but the consistent quality of the productions that has been so remarkable.
Bertie Carvel, making his directorial debut, thoroughly lives up to this gold-plated standard with a production that crackles from first to last. But then, John Galsworthy’s 1909 drama is itself a firecracker – a play not only extraordinarily pertinent but one that encapsulates the history of Britain’s troubled industrial relations and the tensions still living with us today.
Set in the midst of a strike in a Welsh tinplate mining community in the early 20th century, Galsworthy opposes the company’s dyed in the wool chairman – a monumental career-best performance from William Gaunt – against Ian Hughes’ firebrand socialist worker, David Roberts.
Neither man will give an inch and both men Galsworthy ultimately shows are, in their own ways, fanatics in which principle and belief over-ride everything else in their path.
One of the great aspects of the play is not only the way Galsworthy shares out the arguments – and there are some terrific speeches evenly distributed between all sides – but how the basic Capital v Labour debate is lodged into and made to bear the brunt of those caught in between two intransigencies – the wives, mothers and children. Think not only miners’ strike, steel or rail strikes but think also Syria, Iraq et al. Think also Boards of Directors, unions with their agendas and communities sacrificed.
Carvel’s production is tremendous. Starring last year in Richard Jones’ revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, like Jones and O’Neill, he uses minimalism with rich iconography – nowhere more so than the opening scene where John Humphrey announcing Tata’s decision to sell off the British steel plants on the Today programme is set against a gigantic slab heaved into view on pulleys and lit as if molten metal.
All in all, a stunning triumph. They – Church and Finch – are going to be a hard act to follow.
Strife runs at the Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre to Sept 10, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Aug 2016