The stage in Marsden Mechanics Hall was eschewed with a very firm hand on Friday November 14, when actors invited their packed out audience to turn their back on it.
Plumping instead for several rickety wooden stands and several pieces of metal scaffolding, the Townsend Productions troupe set the scene of their play, United We Stand, just in front of the main doors to be level with all those watching.
A deliberate decision, their aim was clear- to transport everyone into the heart of one of the most bitter battles of the 1970s, when building workers joined arms to fight for better working conditions.
Breaking down the traditional barrier between actors and the audience, the latter found themselves taking up roles of their own as rank and file union members of UCATT and other key figures, in a way that made it impossible not to provoke opinions and sympathy regarding the events portrayed.
Led by just a two strong cast who took on multiple roles, Neil Gore and William Fox, it was a fast-paced but nevertheless enthralling recount that revisited the crucial stages of the dispute and aptly highlighted the sense of frustration felt by all those involved, not least that felt by Des Warren and Eric ‘Ricky’ Tomlinson, who were powerfully portrayed.
But it was the way that it was told that created the large amount of audience pathos, which, in true Scouser style, involved non-stop black-humoured jokes and skits, which at several times provoked almost hysterical laughter from the audience.
The dozen or so songs that wove through the action also helped to drive home points in an accessible yet hard-hitting way, some clever, wry re-workings of rock classics and others renditions of activist classics, including Part of the Union.
Accompanied by the actors’ quick quips, humour definitely helped to win over the audience’s hearts, regardless, it seemed, of their own political backgrounds.
But perhaps the best use of bringing the audience into the action was at the end of the play, when they turned into unofficial members of the jury at the trial of some of the 24 men in court over one day of picketing in Shrewsbury and were forced to consider whether the trial was in anyway just.
Meshing humour with serious events and entwining the audience with the actors, the style of the play made the duo’s compelling arguments hard to ignore, and left the audience not only with a sense of heightened compassion but a desire to delve further into the struggle that played out during the decade of discontent.
Townsend Productions will return the play to West Yorkshire next March when they perform at Leeds’ Carriageworks on the 31st.