United We Stand

Neil Gore
Townsend Productions
The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool

Neil Gore and William Fox in United We Stand Credit: Amy Yardley

We’ve all probably heard of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, but until last night I have to confess I had never heard of the Shrewsbury Twenty-four, the topic of Neil Gore’s latest play United We Stand.

Back in 1972, a group of Shrewsbury building workers downed tools and went on strike to protest against poor working conditions and even poorer wages. Amongst their rank was one Ricky Tomlinson. The men were prosecuted and Tomlinson and other ringleaders received prison sentences.

Fast forward to 2014 and Gore’s dramatization of those events is premièring in the intimate surroundings of Liverpool’s Lantern Theatre—a little jewel of a venue tucked away a stone’s throw away from the city centre.

Essentially this is a play concerned with an alleged miscarriage of justice. As such it’s a play that fiercely wants the audience to connect with its message, to feel outraged and ultimately to join its cause. And this the play manages to do, thanks largely to its vaudeville influenced performances and direction.

From the moment the play kicks off with a pounding bass drum leading us into the Sweet’s 1972 hit Blockbuster, it is apparent that the two performers—Gore and partner William Fox—are the kind of all-round performers who might just pull this off. Pull what off? Well, let’s just say that political theatre can sometimes falter under the weight of its own earnestness. No worries here as Gore and Fox keep it nice 'n’ light.

At times it is reminiscent of John McGrath’s 7:84 company and in particularly their wonderful The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, itself dating from 1973. Playing multiple roles, Gore and Fox effortlessly slipped in and out of light and dark, one minute beseeching the men to stand together in their trade union roles and the next minute conducting a surreal game of Opportunity Knocks done with a very convincing Hughie Green drawl. And all this while strumming tunes on the guitar and providing percussion too!

The only bugbear with United We Stand is that, with it being a two-hander and with several characters to portray for both actors, occasionally it’s not absolutely clear which characters we are watching. And the second half of the play does tend to veer toward the didactic as we move towards the court cases.

Having said that, there’s a lot to like about this production. The choice of venue allows the actors to really connect with the audience. After all, what’s the point of producing a piece of drama that wears its heart on its sleeve if the audience can’t actually see the sleeves

United We Stand is up front and personal, in yer face. This sort of production would simply not work at your average mainstream theatre. It’s a show where the audience are invited to join in the ruminations, join the debate and to holler or stamp their feet if they feel so inclined.

As the play wound down, the air was rife with the rumour that Ricky Tomlinson himself would be putting in an appearance before the night was through in this his home city. Alas it proved to be just a rumour. Not to worry, United We Stand is the kind of cake that really doesn’t need any icing.

Hear Neil Gore talk about this production in the BTG podcast.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick

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