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The Spanner Experiment

By Ernest Dalton
Just Press £8

Dateline: 1st December, 2010

Tell me the old Tory story: cut-backs and sit-ins. Happy days are here again. Someone has been arrested for writing REVOLUTION on the plinth of Nelson's Column! And yes, Red Ladder is out of the doldrums of pious youth theatre and is now touring Sex, Docks and Rock 'n' Roll. So it's an appropriate time for Just Press to publish The Spanner Experiment, subtitled 'Rediscovering two minor masterpieces of 1970s agit-prop theatre.'

North West Spanner toured canteens and factory gates with, if these two scripts are anything to go by, increasingly well written Lefty plays. North West Spanner was formed in early Seventies Manchester by two young radicals, Penny Morris and Ernest Dalton. They still live and work in the arts together. Back then Spanner was good enough as a performance group to collect rapturous reviews from the Left press, Plays and Players and The Guardian.

In 1977 theirs was a cause célèbre, when, in an Arts Council shuffle and with the help of a Tory councillor, their small grant was lost. And then, because good men do sometimes come to the aid of the party, re-instated. The story, along with the story of Spanner's nine years reign, is told with insight and self-deflating humour in Ernest Dalton's informative and moving introduction to scripts of two of his plays, Just a Cog and Partisans.

Are they 'minor masterpieces', as suggested by the cover of this paperback? Well... depends how you define masterpiece. They are certainly entertaining and heartening. I guess they were even more so in performance. Just a Cog is classic didactic stuff, clunky and endlessly well intentioned. But Partisans explains the encomium in Plays and Players May 1977: 'Dalton will be recognised as one of the Major British playwrights of the next decade.' Here Dalton gives a long rope to his imagination and the characters start to breath, grin, snarl and dance.

On launch night Dalton, funny and charismatic on stage, introduced readings from the two texts. The readers were students of performance at Leeds University. One of them, George Chillcott, gave us a brilliant speech from Partisans. A worker, castigated as greedy, eats first his critic's arm, then body, then... well, more or less any meaty thing around. It was a treat to see. Chillcott suddenly felt the words, expanded into them and released their power. Bring it on! Bring it on!

And, the book features a few monochrome photographs. The image of David Calder, Henry Livings, Howard Brenton, David Hare and John McGrath at a Conference to Defend the Arts against Political Censorship is worth £8 of anyone's money. Oh yes. Come on George Chillcott and your ilk. Bring it back. Bring it on!

Ray Brown

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©Peter Lathan 2010