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Rouse Ye Women!
I had a bit of a moment during tonight's performance of Neil Gore's folk ballad opera Rouse Ye Women, when I unexpectedly found myself playing a minor role. When I say a minor role, I mean a miniscule role, but a role nevertheless. Bryony Purdue approached the front row where I was sitting, stroking my chin with mock sophistication, and handed me a bundle of sticks, essentially for me to demonstrate to the rest of the audience that the sticks were in fact stronger and more resilient together in a bundle, than as individual twigs. Mary Macarthur, her character, declared "a trade union is like a bundle of sticks. The workers are bound together and have strength of unity. No employer can do as he likes with them. They have the power of resistance. They can ask for an advance without fear. A worker who is not in a Union is like a single stick. She can easily be broken or bent to the will of her employer."
Though I wasn't entirely convincing in my particular role, Bryony Purdue was utterly convincing in hers, her passion shining through each speech, each debate, each confrontation, her performance a demonstration of unmitigated strength. You wouldn't want to mess with Mary Macarthur, that's for sure. Each time she stood upon her soapbox, you believed every single word she said. There's an aura around the character captured perfectly by Bryony, a singer and actor from the east coast of Scotland.
The set reflects a dark industrial Black Country past, the clanging of a single hammer, a washing line hooked to a grim outhouse, with Bird (Rowan Godel) labouring hard under poor conditions and for a pittance. Bird, one of the many women and children chainmakers of the early 20th century, works up to thirteen hours a day, relying on Albert the 'fogger', played by Neil, a sort of go-between, to deliver the iron rods from which she works, for as little reward as possible. The opening dialogue between Albert and Bird is bleak, almost Dickensian, until Mary Macarthur bursts onto the scene, spirited, fearless and determined. A force to be reckoned with.
Louise Townsend's direction is fluid, intelligent and easy to follow, with lots of great dialogue written by Neil, interspersed with songs and music from a score composed by both Neil and John Kirkpatrick, whose work with such notable outfits as Steeleye Span, Home Service, the Richard Thompson Band and Brass Monkey confirms his status as a major folk luminary. The songs are uplifting, almost anthemic, the choruses of which members of the audience are only too pleased to sing along with, tentatively at first, then a little louder by the second chorus and by the final chorus, with complete confidence. The audience becomes the ordinary people on the street, very much involved in the struggle, each one very much wanting something done and something done now.
We are the union, the workers bound as one
We have the strength of unity, and victories can be won
Together we are stronger, our voices have more power
And joined in a trade union, we're sure to win the hour
Each of the performers are in great voice throughout, with most of the instruments played by Neil and some banjo courtesy of Rowan. Rouse Ye Women (Townsend Theatre Productions) manages to address the issues of the time in clear unfussy dialogue, with each of the characters carefully observed, from Mary Macarthur and Bird's empathetic sisterly struggles, to Albert and George's nagging reluctance to accept change. The story of the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath and Mary Macarthur's social crusade is powerful, clearly drawn and poignant; in fact, I would say (from the perspective of an 'extra'), it's a must-see production.