"Exciting uplifting great night out"
by Tim Mottershead for remotegoat on 24/06/18

‘Bread & Roses’ is a new play which retells the real-life incident of a 1912 strike by 20,000 mill-workers in Massachusetts, USA. At the start of the play the workers are in jubilant mood as the New Year has commenced with a union victory for a reduction in the working week – from 56 to 54 hours! However, they soon realise that mill-owner William Dukes (Matthew Ganley) has misled them. From here on in the story centres on Lucy-Rose Atkins (Emma Naomi) charting her rise from widowed mother and unskilled mill worker, to impassioned strike organiser; and union leader Joe Ettor (Rupert Hill) with whose help she mobilises thousands of fellow workers. To this end they are aided by Abbie (Sophie Mercell), Anna (Claire Burns), newcomer Cal Jackson (Oliver Wellington) and Salvation Army Captain Martha (Lauryn Redding), and out-of-state union representative Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn (Tupele Dorgu). The play’s title refers to the fact that the workforce fights not just for their daily bread, but also for roses, to make life worth living. As may be imagined, this battle, in the face of overwhelming odds, requires firm resolve and self-sacrifice, as much as canny tactics.

Sounds worthy, but not very entertaining? Not a bit a of it. This is one of the most pleasurable pieces of theatre you’ll see this year, or any year probably. But what makes ‘Bread & Roses’ such a satisfying experience? Put simply it has everything. It tells a true and realistic story that is balanced and nuanced without romanticized embroidery. There is heartrending tragedy, but it is also hugely enjoyable through the use of humour, and music, yet nevertheless manages to address many relevant contemporary issues. Known as ‘The Singing Strike’ the play uses songs from the time, mainly by Joe Hill (who inspired numerous protest singers from Woody Guthrie to Billy Bragg) to propel the story along. The musical arrangements, and the delivery of the songs is impeccably realised by musical director Howard Gray, and enhanced by Lorna Munden’s sound design. The sheer range of the music is surprising too, ranging from protest songs and battle-hymns, to gospel, with massed vocal harmonies, beautifully delivered, whether accompanied or a cappella. Various actors double in the playing of instruments including piano, guitar, and drums, besides making significant vocal contributions.

The actors taking leading roles mentioned above are more than ably supported by a large chorus that includes Kieron Moore, Rose Starkey, Chloe Heywood, Claire Dobson, Arthur Hewitt, Brian Dunk, Nathaly Godoy, Kasey Christian, and Rowan Curran; and with Ayvea Byrd and Angel Igbinehi featuring on alternate nights as Lucy-Rose’s daughter Ruby. Mention should be made of the set and lighting designs by Kate Unwin and Stewart Bartles: an amazing painted backdrop lit in a variety of ways serves to suggest numerous scenarios. And the script by Ian Kershaw achieves the rare distinction of presenting many issues which resonate with an increasing contemporary relevance, which appear to arise as a natural consequence of the exploring the issues of the 1912 strike, rather than a flag waving manifesto appended afterwards. Direction from Amanda Huxtable ensures that this uplifting and inspiring production delivers a great night out.

If you only attend one show this year, make it ‘Bread & Roses’, but be quick about it, as it only runs for two weeks.

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