Brighton Fringe 2023
Towards the end of ‘Chopped Liver & Unions’, Sara Wesker tells us about her nephew Arnold, the playwright. – “Nice boy, but just because he’s a nice boy doesn’t mean he’s a good writer”.
He was, though; and the character of Sarah in ‘Chicken Soup with Barley’ is generally thought to be based on Arnold Wesker’s aunt. Sara herself cared passionately about people as individual human beings with needs and aspirations – in Wesker’s play Sarah says “You have to start with love. How can you talk about socialism otherwise?”
But Sara also burned with ambition to fight the economic, political and sexual injustices she saw around her, and encouraged working women to fight to get better pay and conditions – in this side of her personality she’s more like the character of Sarah’s sister-in-law, the union organiser Cissie from ‘Chicken Soup with Barley’.
Writer J J Leppink has put words into Sara Wesker’s mouth, and now Lottie Walker has brought Sara to life on the stage of The Rotunda.
Sara Wesker is Jewish, descendant of immigrants who arrived in London’s East End after probably fleeing from pogroms in eastern Europe. There have been waves of refugees over the centuries – French Hugenots, then Polish and Russian Jews in the nineteenth century, followed by Bangladeshi and Ugandan Asians in the twentieth century, and Kurds and Syrians in more recent years. One hundred and twenty thousand souls in the Thirties, packed into two square miles around Mile End, producing a diverse, vibrant community. As Sara tells us – “If you want to know what’s happening in the world – where are the wars, the unrest – look to the East End. Where’s your newest neighbour from?”
Sara is a Communist, but she’s also a Feminist and a trade unionist, and as the Rotunda lights come up she’s seated at a desk at the right of the stage, typing a letter to the owner of a garment manufacturer, demanding better pay for the female workers. There’s a piano (with pianist) to the left, and in the middle on the back wall are three posters supporting strikes, the biggest proclaiming THE UNION KEEPS US STRONG
Nothing else: no complicated set or props – J J Leppink is keen to give us Sara Wesker’s ideas, and the principles that motivate her, so Lottie Walker as Sara just talks to us about what drives her on. She’s wearing a simple brown dress – not the kind of clothing you’d expect on the barricades – but there’s a steely indignation in her voice as she tells us about all the work women are expected to do – at home as well as at work – and how they are valued less. Being paid one farthing to sew a pair of trousers, then seeing them on sale for ten times as much. It’s not just about money, but also about status – She’s just a seamstress, He’s a tailor. She’s just a cook, He’s a chef.
Sara’s moral sense burns at the unfairness of it, and Lottie Walker’s delivery ramps up and becomes more animated as she tells us about the first strike she organised, at Goodman’s garment factory, where she led the women out, all six hundred of them, and kept the action going for twelve weeks, until they had achieved their demands. It’s a stirring performance – starting quietly by musing on the morality of the situation, then upping her volume and speed of delivery as she recounts the victory, and finally segueing into ‘John Brown’s Body’ hammered out enthusiastically by James Hall on the piano.
There’s a lot of music in the show, either as background to Sara’s words, or as songs celebrating the working class – some American, some from the Great War. As Sara says, the women “do not have money, or power, or physical strength. Striking, and raising our voices in song, are the only tools that we have.”
‘Chopped Liver & Unions’ is set in the Thirties, and Sara herself took part in the battle of Cable Street, against Mosley’s Blackshirts (and the police), but the problems we face haven’t changed. When she told us that the capitalists always blame the strikers, and that “soon they’ll ban strikes altogether, claim they’ve fixed it all” it felt like today’s politics, and there were nods and vocal expressions of agreement from a lot of the audience.
Sara set up her own union, the United Clothing Workers Union, and had a long political and romantic relationship with Mick Mindel, another Jewish union activist. But she (and J J Leppink) are careful to locate her work within the history of women’s union activities. She tells us of the Matchgirls at Bryant and May’s factory, suffering for years from the toxic effects of white phosphorus, who only got better conditions after fourteen hundred of them walked out, back in 1888. She talks of the Suffragettes, and how their fight for the right for women to vote – though only ‘respectable’ property-owning women at first. She brings it into the modern era by mentioning the machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory, who went on strike in 1968 in pursuit of equal pay for the same work, and whose victory led to the setting up of the Equal Pay Act.
“To the Matchgirls, who forged the path for the rest of us to tread.”
The show’s Director, Laura Killeen, matched the combination of set, music and dialogue brilliantly. Lottie Walker didn’t just play Sara Wesker, she became her. I felt I’d been in the presence of a powerful personality. At the close she and James Hall performed ‘The Red Flag’ – most of the audience (including your reviewer) joined in, and I spotted more than a few tears in my neighbours’ eyes.