FringeReview UK 2023
An important work, not just for historical reasons; you’ll leave cheering.
DIRECTOR Kirsty Patrick Ward, DESIGNER Libby Watson, LIGHTING DESIGNER Jamie Platt, SOUND DESIGNER Dominic Brennan, MOVEMENT DIRECTOR Ira Mandela Siobhan, PRODUCTION MANAGER Adam Burns,
STAGE MANAGER Harry Adu Faulkner, ASM Chloe Brown, COSTUME SUPERVISOR Caroline Hannam, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Sofia Zaragoza, ASSISTANT DESIGNER Raphaella Philcox.
Till May 6th
Dublin, July 1984. A young woman working in the still-famous store Dunne’s refuses to sell a South African grapefruit. Nearly three years later, Ireland becomes the first country in the world to ban imports from the Apartheid state.
Directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, Tracy Ryan’s Strike! – revised from its 2010 premiere and playing at Southwark till May 6th – follows the strikers, based on the protagonists’ memories and input. In a new age of strikes based on sheer subsistence, it’s salutary to remember those (already just managing) who lost homes, were beaten up, went without food, for a cause thousands of miles away. Which they helped to win.
Mary (Chloe O’Reilly) was simply following a union directive, indeed was praying (like her colleague) not to be the one to take a stand. But she’s suspended, nine women and one man walk out, to picket Dunne’s till April 1987. By then they’ve flown to South Africa, been incarcerated, and branded ‘the most dangerous shopworkers in the world’ just as they address the UN.
How times have worsened – particularly in the UK – in 40 years of techno-serfdom. That doesn’t make Ryan’s drama less relevant: indeed it reminds us we can fight. That’s one timely reason for its revival, though Ryan’s been revising since 2015.
Another acknowledges that another 13 years on, many won’t remember Apartheid. So we’re treated to more narrations – mainly by union rep and main protagonist Karen (Jessica Regan). Regan varies from blow-torch to warm glow and anchors the play with just the right gravitas. But as we’ll find out, she’s not the key witness here.
Ryan also interrogates the fissure opening up since 2010, over white saviour narratives. No, it can’t compare to the 1000 who died at Soweto in 1976 (as we’re graphically reminded here).The point is Black South Africa have embraced these activists over the decades since; they made a huge impact, they did all they could. In 2013 they were all invited to Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Parallels with Made in Dagenham (also, interestingly from 2010) are clear enough and maybe Ireland will produce a film as popular and feelgood, if more gritty.
Historically though South Africa was present in Dublin. After years of exile, Nimrod (Mensah Bediako) chooses Ireland as his father reminds him: “it’s the only place where whites oppressed other whites” – for a Black socialist, it’s a fascinating anthropological study too. Bediako narrates much for the strikers’ sake, ringing with authority, humour –ultimately played back to him in a growing camaraderie – and bleak facts.
Even in the Southwark Large it’s a fast-moving ensemble piece needing little clutter. Libby Watson’s set mainly consists of Dunne’s sign with ever-shifting lighting over swing doors, a few shop props, two tills, a basket of grapefruit, a trolley. Ira Mandela Siobhan’s movement really makes this an ensemble ballet – perhaps most striking when donning plastic macs over their heads, the actors become the strikers’ kick-ass mothers, a riot-dance of resistance rivalling the New Zealand All Blacks.
At such moments Dominic Brennan’s sound punches out Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Eurythmics, Madonna, Prince: a backwash of faded aspirations as the 80s kick in.
Jamie Platt’s lighting is a starring feature here – atmospheric, witty (that mothers’ ballet) and harrowing – punching red shafts over Tommy (Adam Isla O’Brien), beaten up by police, an extraordinary piece of physical theatre. The start too with individual lighters is hauntingly good. The production’s impact might have been even greater with more of Platt’s work.
O’Brien’s a quietly compelling presence as Tommy, who suffers privation, losing his band (he briefly plays his guitar, in a tiny riveting moment) and deal with Bono (perhaps), played on – to no effect – by oleaginous Machiavel shop manager Paul – one of Paul Carroll’s roles. Carroll relishes slick-haired Paul and in a trice tousles it to Brendan, regional union rep who unlike their union sticks by the strikers, represents them in court, introduces them to Nimrod and like him stands for wider struggles. There’s also touching interplay between O’Brien and Chloe O’Reilly’s Mary, shyly wooing him, under the shadow of bishops, who disapprove as much of romance as thy do of the strike. This is still Catholic Ireland, before the revelations.
There’s several narratives that could have been fleshed out in the 100 minutes by just a few seconds. Vonnie (Doireann May White, a finely detailed performance) who faces losing her home – in court despite Brendan’s championing her cause, is one. Individual stories are built up, then sometimes dropped. Others are sketched in. Newbie from night-shift Liz (Anne O’Riordan) is also the youngest yet ends speaking all over Ireland. Sinead (Ciana Howlin, making an assured stag debut) can’t face striking, yet plays a late key role, and doubles in other parts. Theresa (Charlotte Duffy), often a sparky joyful presence, also discovers she’s pregnant – a cause for joy here.
Sandra (Aoife Boyle) lends support as another activist stalwart, as does Alma (Sheila Moylette); Cathryn (Ciara Andrea Murphy) as a downright earthy wit, and Michelle (Orla Scally) blazes with optimism when others despond.
Strike! is perhaps inevitably a feelgood, riotous night out. Standing ovations and cheers show how it hits the sweet spot. It still feels just a little generic, the necessary history lessons a bit TIE – but then it should tour to schools and colleges as well as theatres – where narrative strands comprising only another 5-10 minutes might deepen the impact.
We’re treated to a precious drop or two, and of course it’s about the struggle, but the grin of personal struggle always fixes things in the mind. There’s no text as yet and its possible Ryan is trying this version out and could think again. I’d welcome that, but in the meantime, this will resoundingly do. It’s an important work, not just for historical reasons; you’ll leave cheering.