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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Directed by Amy Burns Walker, Designed by Caitlin Mawhinney, Lighting Design Catja Hamilton, (Sound Designer Kayode Gomez Movement Direction Phoebe Hyder.). Stage Manager John Martin Bristow.

Till July 18th


In a summer of strikes nostalgia’s more than it used to be. It’s a flaming gauntlet. But let’s rewind.

In 1974, a stunning Play for Today by Colin Welland – Leeds United!  – featured the clothworkers’ strikes of 1970. It was revived as one of the best five and re-broadcast last year. In fact it’s the best of all, and should be reclaimed as a classic.

Its mass scenes, deliberate docu-black-and-white, huge cast and simmering events of just four years previously almost had it banned. No wonder: it’s Brechtian. At its core is betrayal of women workers by male trade unionists. Half-forgotten now, it’s to date the only, if magnificent memorial to women’s struggle for decent, and equal pay.

Enter Millie Gaston’s Shake the City – part of the second JST Footprints Festival – with a still-substantial cast of four to shiver complacency to splinters. Developed by Leeds Playhouse, directed by Amy Burns Walker, it features designs by Creative Associate Caitlin Mawhinney including hanging clothes and a stage marked with clothwork generally. And blitzy and tenebrous lighting by JST’s Catja Hamilton.

They’re well-defied characters too. Rachel Halliwell’s Margaret, anxious trade-unionist married to another, but with a dark heart to that, seems the nervous, tight-rope-walking rep desperate to push boundaries somehow, yet not in the workplace. The crumbling of her persona – beautifully realised in a lime green and white tweedy premature-middle-aged outfit – is tellingly wrought, detailed, full of double-take and resolve; Halliwell’s wholly believable.

Margaret’s shaken out of tweediness by Stephanie Hutchinson’s proud activist Lori, who asks what Margaret was doing in setting up their own makeshift Women’s Liberation Movement meetings if the didn’t want revolution. Sending money back home, Lori’s aware too of more precarity, more unfairness in rent (OK 1970s was still rent-controlled, but pay didn’t always match it) and occasionally racism. Precarity though doesn’t make her flinch. Hutchinson’s portrayal of the strong-voiced Lori’s vulnerabilities and sudden lurches to penury is another highlight.

Emma Leah-Golding’s Heather is the odd one out. Oxford-bound to read Mathematics she soon stands apart, sensible yet northern when down south. Heather feels her isolation, waiting for phone-calls from bestie Wendy that don’t come (we find out why) yet also immersing herself in everything from WLMs through to Margaret Attwood’s early novels. Leah-Golding registers someone professionally-bound, middle-class yet drawn back in her refusal to sell out to mere success. But she has to do it from a distance, wryly through premature spectacles.

The person Heather relies on for those phone-calls is the initially non-political Wendy, sassy in big hair and a terrific singer (several solos, thankfully) in Kitty Watson’s portrayal of a young woman who wants to enjoy life, yet realises there’s more consequences than the obvious. At first she’s received reluctantly by Margaret and Lori who ask where her feminism is. Her journey to liberation though is complex. Watson’s vibrant, vulnerable and ultimately affirmative action is negotiated in the role of a young woman enjoying life, lovers, break-ups, a hitherto conventional mindset. By the end she’s yelling.

It’s September 1969. Soon the women of the John Collier’s clothworking factory are ‘standing on the cusp of a shining new decade’ but there’s a lot of unpicking of fusty male prejudice to do yet. And it’s still not over. The historical facts are narrated, the possible taking-on of equal pay by the unions, revelations, and the flash-point, hesitated over, delayed, but finally erupt and catch like a Molotov from another play this season.

Shake the City is more than Leeds United! in miniature, and wholly different. This is a real play bursting out of its hour-plus length; with complex interaction, uncertain journeys, each character developing a crisis of isolation only resolved by sisterhood. Oh, and if you’re the audience, you too, as everyone holds placards at the end.

A Johnstone Creative Associate with JST, Gaston’s work seems on its own journey. The end has to be telegraphed by narration as the four women wave placards back at the placard-waving audience narrating the end of the strike and the knowledge this solidarity will evaporate, leaving only the women who’ve forged deeper bonds.

The end too reminds me of Claire Barron’s Dance Nation staged at the Almeida in 2018. It gusts with the same joyous energy, if with a smaller cast. Here though it seems the only possible end in the hour allotted to it, and I wonder if Gaston’s already thinking this could make a 90-minute work, at the last.

There’s storytelling, especially Heather’s, that seems sketchy if knowledgeable about isolation in halls, and the dynamic between her and the other three, whilst well-observed and detailed, still seems oblique – though naturally its canny refusal to keep it local and expand to an Oxford undergraduate lends a dimension allowing a differently-voiced register of protest. It’s as if there’s a real-life story that needs more fleshing-out. With an Offies OffCom Commendation, already this is a superb start though, and Gaston’s one to watch.