Shoehorned onto the second floor of an abandoned warehouse, The Lantern is not your typical glitzy city centre theatre. But considering the historical context and working class spirit of ‘United We Stand’, it seems like the perfect venue.
Ricky Tomlinson is known to most of us as the layabout dad from the hit sitcom, The Royle Family. But in 1972, the then construction worker – along with fellow activist Des Warren – was at the front of a controversial ‘flying picket’ strike campaign that shut down building sites all across the country. A year later, Tomlinson and Warren, along with 22 others, were convicted of conspiracy to intimidate following a protest in Shrewsbury. This play explores their story.
As you search for your seat, a man in a sheepskin coat stalks up and down the stage angrily, asking audience members whether they are unionised. Then as the clock strikes 7.30, he swaps the coat for a ukulele and launches into the opening song.
Such is the vein of this energetic two-man show. Neil Gore and William Fox will regularly throw on a hat or a tie and switch between characters mid-scene. Occasionally they lose track themselves, leading to some charming moments of improvisation.
The play assumes that you already know the bones of the story and the people involved – it speeds through key events and is full of references to real life personalities, including a central satirical segment on the heads of ‘The Big Conspiracy’.
At times you can begin to lose track of the plot as the two actors jump maniacally around the major characters and events, but the two actors are accomplished and convincing enough to keep you immersed, and the scenes are punctuated with folk-legend style protest songs that bring the audience up to speed, and inject real feeling into the progression of the story.
The ‘Shrewsbury 24’ justice campaign is close to forcing the government to release confidential files that they believe will finally prove them the victims of an establishment conspiracy to intimidate trade unionists, rather than the thuggish aggravators they were painted as.
This feeling of injustice is particularly evident in the last 20 minutes of United We Stand. It’s impassioned, it’s funny, and it’s never patronising, but most of all, after over 40 years of campaigning amongst increasing political apathy, it’s fitting.
United We Stand runs at The Lantern Theatre until October 11th.