We're Not Going Back
Red Ladder Theatre Company
Leeds City Varieties Music Hall
The once ground-breaking and illustrious Red Ladder theatre company is back on the boards and singing the good old song of socialism and progress.
It swerved off course for a couple of decades, plunging into youth theatre (by way of feminism) then dwindling. But under the direction of Rod Dixon it has refound its roots and started to blossom once more.
Last year it lost 100% of its Arts Council funding, and now cocks a snook at those who said it would fold. This national tour, subsidised by Unite the Union, has been wowing audiences from Islington to miners’ welfares in Yorkshire.
And for good reasons. We’re Not Going Back, written by Boff Whalley and directed by Rod Dixon, tells the story of the ’84 to ’85 Miners’ Strike through the experience of three Yorkshire sisters. As different as chalk and cheese, but gradually unified by the cause, they form the core of the local Women Against Pit Closures group.
Victoria Brazier, Stacey Sampson and Claire-Marie Seddon capture character with delightful accuracy and when singing, for this is in some senses a musical, they are stunningly emotive.
Over the year of the strike the sisters develop new skills, new confidence, new strength. And when the strike is over they are amongst the first to recognise that there has been a sort of victory. They really are not going back. An irreversible change has taken place. This is a feel good production and, for me and the audience, it is very firmly on the right side.
Dixon’s direction is superbly unobtrusive, never drawing attention to itself with flash theatricality but allowing text and performance to meld together and do their work to effect. And, although this is classic small scale touring, designer Ali Alen has come up with a revolve which allows several scene changes. As with Dixon’s direction, and Tim Skelly’s lighting, the aim is accessible story-telling. Nothing gets in the way.
Boff Whalley’s writing is well-crafted with gentle movements through pain and confusion, pride and joy. The whole features a regular input of perfectly timed and phrased comic lines worthy of Alan Bennett, to name but one master of a northern humour of knowing whimsy.
Try "there’s not a lot of joy in a fish-based relationship"—she works on the fish counter in the local supermarket, he goes fishing. Whalley tells much of the story in song, funny, moving, angry, always apposite, always beautifully written and beautifully performed. On stage with the three sisters is Beccy Owen, seated at her keyboard, playing and often singing along.
And Whalley knows how to make the emotion in this play all the more powerful by using the soft pedal. He also allows the sisters' story to reveal the story of a Yorkshire pit village community. Emotion is a key word, most of this Leeds audience had been miners or strike supporter, so we had that that best of all theatrical mixtures: laughter and tears. Our lovely old City Variety Music Hall swirled with a palpable sense of sadness combined with celebration. And as this play so clearly clearly shows, there is plenty to celebrate.
This is a play that never patronizes its audience, but speaks directly and clearly to them. It is a committed play, a play for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The present tour ends on 21 February here in Leeds, but I think we will see it come round again. And if it comes your way—see it, take as many as you can with you. It is telling truths denied by our establishment media.
Welcome back Red Ladder, you’re living a fine tradition, and you’re needed now just as much as when you were founded in the heady days of 1968.
Reviewer: Ray Brown