Monday, 18 May 2015

Singing on the picket line?

Is it a travesty of an important Victorian industrial dispute, to portray it as a musical? Particularly a
musical rooted in the music hall tradition? Playwright Fatima Uygun doesn’t think so. She is one of a group of writers and performers who have come together to produce Strike a Light – a musical celebration of the 1888 Matchgirls strike in the East End of London. This is premiering at The Steamie, a venue within Glasgow’s Govanhill Baths as part of the Southside Fringe Festival.
Fatima says, “We have based this in a music hall, because it was a working-class  phenomena of the time, especially in the East End where the Bryant & May factory was situated.” One of her co-writers, Colin Poole is himself from the East End, and both writers are keen to re-evaluate the image of music hall , and place it firmly in working-class history.
The musical also taps into another interesting tradition, that of gender identity, and in particular cross-dressing. The story is told by ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ a popular music hall character, traditionally played by a woman dressed as a man. It features both traditional music hall songs, later songs in that tradition, and a number of new songs. New music was written for the play by Gavin Livingstone (of the Stars Band) and Colin Poole. Another writer (as well as an actor) is Jim Monaghan, who is both the Govanhill Baths only employee, and a performance poet in his own right.
Match Girls 1888
The strike, in an industry overwhelmingly staffed by young women, was started after an article by social reformer Annie Besant drew attention to the conditions in the match industry. The use of toxic white phosphorus had appalling health consequences for the workers, many of who contracted ‘phossy jaw’.  Bryant and May tried to get the workforce to sign a denial of the accusations, and after one worker was sacked – the strike started. Over 1400 workers were on strike by the end of the first day! The strike lasted over two weeks and ultimately led to significant improvements.
While this is the first strike recorded where the participants were young women. Fatima is at pains the point out that they would not have been isolated from the labour movement. Many of their families would have been dockers, and possibly gas workers where industrial activity also took place around this time.
The show taps into a number of theatrical traditions apart from music hall, using the Brechtian ‘play within a play’ device. It isn’t the first time that the Matchgirls Strike has been made into a musical – The Matchgirls, by actor, writer and director, Bill Owen – was put on in the West End in 1964.
Strike a Light, has enough elements in it to ensure a further theatrical tradition is followed. Didacticism is eschewed to ensure that, in John McGrath’s words; ‘a good night out’ is had by all!
Strike a Light is on in The Steamie, within the Govanhill Baths from Tuesday 19 – Saturday 23 May. Tickets £10/£8 from brownpapertickets.

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