Edinburgh Fringe 2023
The East End of London has burned with the fires of rebellion for centuries. From the Matchgirls in 1888 to the Made in Dagenham workers at Ford’s in 1968, its women have fought for change. In 1928, Sara Wesker led a 12-week strike with the workers literally singing for their suppers on the picket line. In 1936 she fought at the battle of Cable Street. But did this formidable woman’s passion for the cause destroy her relationship for the love of her life?
Chopped Liver and Unions – the title a punning twist on a classic London East End Jewish cuisine – is a show about a pioneering woman of the British trade union movement in the 1920as and 1930s. Like many women who have changed the world for the better Sara Wesker – charmingly portrayed by Lottie Walker – is not written about in history books so playwright JJ Leppink worked with the local historians of Hackney to unearth a rich and lively biography. Although more could have been made of Sara’s street smarts in developing a striker’s song book the result is a play with songs which introduces us to this engaging and witty militant (delightfully costumed by Zoe Harvey-Lee against a backdrop of trade union banners, part of Fiona Auty’s set design).
Sara is a garment worker in Spitalfields, now a district of trendy eateries and boutiques but then home to many migrants fleeing conflict or seeking a better life. She grows up in a tight knit Jewish community of hardworking families and nosy neighbours, a community which has expectations on her to marry and have children but she is more interested in fighting social injustice, alongside her socialist boyfriend and comrade. Appalled at the discrimination experienced by woman machinists she leads the fight for equal pay for equal work – male tailors being valued more highly than mere machinists. Although Sara’s story is prominent in the show the company draw a line from the match girls of the 1880s protesting at lethal working conditions through the garment workers union which Sara founded to the Ford of Dagenham strikers in the 1960s ably demonstrating that it is all too often the men what gets the decent (ish) pay check whilst the women get small change.
Blue Fire Theatre Company are on a mission to tell the stories of forgotten women (Marie Lloyd Stole my Life was their 2022 production) and they do a good job honouring the hard work and trail blazing of Sara Wesker. Lottie Walker needs to grow in confidence to become the fully rounded story teller the material deserves; she is a little shy of engaging with the audience and taking on different characterisations. The piano playing of James Hall is a pleasant addition but more use could be made of having a live musician on stage, particularly given Sara’s successes of producing a striker’s song book and leading woman in song helped fund the strikes she led. Lyrics are in the programme so encourage the audience to join in!
Sara’s position in her family is celebrated by her nephew the playwright Arnold Wesker in his trilogy of plays drawn from the life of his extended family. Her position as a founding matriarch of the modern trade union movement is finally and rightfully celebrated here.