Chopped Liver and Unions

J J Leppink
Out of the Fire
theSpace on the Mile

Chopped Liver and Unions

At a time where a large portion of the entertainment industry is shut down overseas due to industrial action, it's an oddly fitting choice to bring the story of Sarah Wesker to the Festival Fringe stage. It’s perhaps surprising that today, the actions of Sarah Wesker are less well known, considering her impact on trade unionism in the 1920s and 1930s as well as participating in the infamous Battle of Cable Street and clashing with the Blackshirt fascists.

Lottie Walker plays Wesker with an easy-going and affable charm, but makes it abundantly clear that behind the friendly exterior stands a spine of hammered iron. For the hour’s traffic of the stage, she leads the audience through the East End textile factories and the events that brought her to clash with management, organise her peers and face off against the sexist ideals of her day. It’s an entirely believable performance, flavoured with snippets of home life, and peppered liberally with Yiddish.

There’s also full musical accompaniment throughout from James Hall, who hammers the keys through a series of familiar tunes, put to the lyrics that the Singing Strikers used to raise funds whilst striking for better conditions and fairer pay.

The surprising thing about the show is that, despite the songs, the wealth of information being expounded and the extent of the history being told, what’s missing from this tale is the human vulnerability and openness that would bind it all into a really fascinating whole. There’s a touch too much didactic fact-dropping that carries with it a slight air of self-satisfaction, which makes sense considering the topic but keeps the audience at arm's length. It instead gives you the sense of a lecture, or being stuck at tea with a persistent aunt who insists on recounting the stories of her youth, knowing there’s little anyone can do to politely get away.

Which is not to say that it’s not an entertaining performance. Walker is charming and funny, and even adapted well to a prop chair breaking mid-show. But the human soul of this story isn’t quite there, and perhaps a stronger sense of curation to weave a narrative through the events of her life might have served to better engage the crowd emotionally as well as educate them.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan

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