Review – We Are The Lions, Mr Manager

We Are The Lions, Mr Manager – written by Neil Gore – Townsend Theatre Productions – New Wolsey Studio – last night and touring

There are many very important stories to be told on the historical road to freedom – and Townsend Productions, formed in 2011 as collaboration between director Louise Townsend, writer Neil Gore and musician John Kirkpatrick, have carved a niche for themselves on the socialist workers front. Their previous productions have included an adaptation of the book ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’, ‘We Will Be Free!’ about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and ‘United We Stand’ about the Shrewsbury pickets.

As this year celebrates the struggles of women to gain the vote and become more equal in our society, they have chosen to take up the largely forgotten story of a strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London between 1976 and 1978 which was led by Ugandan Asian Jayaben Desai.

Grunwick traded under a number of names such as Doubleprint and Trueprint – a mail order photo processing business cashing in on the explosion in cheap holiday snaps. But they paid notoriously low wages and exploited their workers with unpaid overtime and poor contracts.

Today the power of the trade unions is minimal – as most of our manufacturing industries have disappeared –   but in the 70’s they were a force to be reckoned with and unrest in the factories and  strikes by aggrieved workers were a common occurrence.

This was a strike that was at the time one of the most violent as far as arrests and police brutality went, and divisive in that the trade unions initially supported the strike but then wavered in their support which in the end weakened their position irreversibly.

But it was a step forward for women – and particularly Asian women – as this was the first time they had stood up for their rights and been given media coverage and a voice.

All Townsend Productions are told in a reported style with minimum staging and performers – and with folk- type music and songs punctuating the action. Medhavi Patel played the main protagonist with fire and passion and total belief in this feisty woman’s drive and self determination that took her through all the male bigotry and discrimination. However – she started at such an intensity it was often hard to make out what she was saying. The shouting needed to be controlled in order to be more effective and build up to a climax. Starting at such a pitch gave her nowhere to go, although she went there all the same!

Neil Gore played all the other characters as caricatures of the 1970’s – the sweaty leering manager, the racist policemen, the salt of the earth trade unionist. And he interspersed the songs as well, accompanying himself with a variety of guitars. The songs gave the show a real atmosphere of the time – although they did become a little repetitive towards the middle of the second half.

There was much that was admirable in the telling of this story – and from the comments at the after show talkback it seemed that the Asian community had got a lot out of this production. But for me I would have liked to know more about Jayaben herself – her home life, what her  family thought of her long struggle, and to have heard her son’s version of events and others voices who were caught up in the fight –  in order to have felt more connected with her.

It also needed to link somehow to the struggles of today – the gender and equal pay equality issues that rage at the moment – and the place of women in today’s society  – in order to make it more relevant to a younger audience that the performers were anxious to engage with.

An admirable if over long production that could be re written to engage with a wider audience.

Suzanne Hawkes

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