United We Stand

United We Stand: The CLF Art Café, Bussey Building, London

For most people, Ricky Tomlinson is best known as a much loved star of The Royle Family and Brookside. But in earlier times Tomlinson worked in the construction industry. In the early 1970s, he was at the centre of a strike which used the practise of `flying pickets’. In 1973, Tomlinson along with Des Warren and others were arrested and charged with conspiracy to intimidate and affray in what became known as the case of The Shrewsbury 24. Tomlinson and Warren were sent to jail.

Over 40 years on, an official Shrewsbury 24 Campaign is under way to have the convictions over-turned. An appeal has been made to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to have the case re-examined and government documents, still being withheld, released.

Which is where United We Stand comes in, a labour of love and as splendid a piece of theatrical agit-prop since its heyday in the heady days of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. It’s good to welcome it back, particularly as presented by Gore and his colleague, William Fox. Energetic, passionate, engaged and rich in satire, it’s a reminder of how well theatre can be used in a good cause and of the best origins of trade unionism for all its sometimes excesses.

Gore, who bears a passing resemblance to Tomlinson and the thin-as-a-reed Fox are both fantastic musical performers as well as actors, ably conveying the emotion and outrage in the folk and trade union songs arranged by the show’s musical director John Kirkpatrick (famously of Steeleye Span, Albion Band and others) which carry us to the heart of the human and political issues.

If initially bewildering in its pace and delineation of characters – Trade unionists, strikers, building employers, MPs – Louise Townsend’s production nonetheless revels in its rough and ready format – video clips projected onto canvas, a bevy of hats and jackets adorned then discarded and a knockabout vaudevillian edge that brings out the best in its audience, too.

By the end, with the judge’s summing up, you can’t but feel the sting of injustice and lyrics, written for other circumstances, which speak of exploitation of the many by the few.

First published on Reviewsgate in Nov 2014;