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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Paved with Gold and Ashes

Threedumb Theatre

Genre: Theatre

Venue: Greenside Infirmary


Low Down

Based on a true event in New York City in 1911, the play deals with The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – which killed 146 garment workers, shocked the public and galvanised the labour movement. This ensemble retelling of the tragic fire takes us fully into the context of the time, as well as having huge resonance for malpractice in the present day.


Right from the start, we are immersed in the context of early 20th century New York during the period of mass migration from Europe. The five young women characters come from a range of backgrounds – Jewish, Irish, Italian – and they share the hopes and dreams of new arrivals to the USA, where ‘the streets are paved with gold.’

Through banter and back story, we hear of their plans for a better life in the future. The narrative unfolds in 3 main ways, creating a lively, brisk pace: via direct address to the audience as each character shares their story, via interaction between the characters on stage, and via narration, as characters comment on each other or their shared circumstances.

The drudgery of their work is presented very effectively alongside the irony that the Triangle is regarded as a cut above the other factory and sweatshop work that is available. By the time the fire sweeps through the building, we have got to know them individually and as a group – as well as them representing (offstage) the cast of 100s of young women workers in the factory – and we are personally invested in what happens to them.

The piece is marked by astonishing theatricality and creative use of a small stage area.  With the inventive use of a few chairs for scene changes, we see internal space like the factory line, as well as outdoor settings such as rooves and different floors of the building. The choreography of all the physical movement is careful, purposeful and precise, and we are there with the characters, as they travel uptown, negotiate the city streets, share cramped living and working conditions – and eventually try to escape the spreading fire. The economy of movement throughout is remarkable to watch.

There is a soundscape to add to our immersion in the play and its context. The soundtrack of the machines in the background is an ever-present reminder of entrapment in the workplace and the slowness of time passing. The acapella singing in English and Hebrew is clear and beautiful, giving us a sense of the songs and traditions that migrants bring with them. There is also a linguistic hinterland as characters refer to learning English but speaking Italian or Yiddish.

The script has the hallmark of thorough research, but with careful and judicious selection. There is a wealth of material in the public domain about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in terms of contemporary eye-witness accounts, documentary evidence and newspaper reports. As audience, we are a collective witness to this event, faithfully and meticulously created on stage with a complete authenticity. We are not over-loaded with information, but are given just enough for us to understand, feel and imagine the visceral impact of the tragedy.

This is a very powerful ensemble performance, precisely executed and utterly convincing. We may know the ending, but tears are unavoidable. It is theatre at its heart-stoppingly best.