Written by Ian Kershaw
Directed by Amanda Huxtable
Ian Kershaw has written a protest musical based on the 1912 Bread and Roses worker’s strike in Massachusetts that is as relevant today and is a powerful call to arms. Kershaw is a passionate advocate of solidarity, equality and compassion and his views shine through in this piece. Bread & Roses is an anthem for change and a homage to the hope that Our Tomorrows are better than our Yesterdays.
The opening scene is beautiful and truly memorable. Holding candlelit lamps, the cast bring in the new year of 1912 as they sing Auld Lang Sang a capello. New legislation had decreed that women and children now have a working week of 54 hours instead of 56. The Bread and Roses strike was the worker’s response to mill owners reducing pay and speeding up the looms. In a community comprised mainly of immigrants, the particularly special nature of this strike is that there was a united multinational response from the workers. Belts on looms were cut, the first moving picket line in America got around new legislation about loitering and children were sent away to places where they could be properly fed. Public response forced change and the mill owners had to accede to the workers demands.
This is a very strong and multiskilled cast. They sing extremely well and many play a range of instruments including piano, guitar, and banjo. The music is a mix of belting hymns such as Rock of Ages, haunting Irish ballads like The Parting Glass and stirring protest songs. There is Power in a Union by activist Joe Hill famous for his songs in that era, the wonderful Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim and the stirring bluegrass Ain’t No Grave made famous by Johnny Cash. The protest was known as “The Singing Strike of 1912” and this play celebrates that with gusto.
Lauren Redding as stout- hearted Martha gives a standout performance with an incredible voice and stage presence. Claire Burns as the martyred Anna is astounding. She creates goose pimples as the ghostly presence with her beautiful voice. I would happily buy the soundtrack to this production if it’s made available. Now that might be a great way to raise money for the foodbanks or homeless around Oldham??
The male performers do a great job throughout, particularly Oliver Wellington as Cal, but this is a female led cast. It’s star acting performance is Emma Naomi who has incredible natural grace on stage and captivates as Lily-Rose, the young widow and mother who finds her voice as an activist.
This was a very impressive opening night and Director Amanda Huxtable has created something very special. There are points where a more relaxed, naturalistic approach might benefit especially in the movement direction which at times appeared stilted. Moments where the chorus move into the aisles and circle during protest rallies work well creating a strong sense of audience involvement and creating more energy on stage. The illustrating of issues such as immigration, poverty, unemployment and the dangers of “false news” are crystal clear, leaving uncertainty around the need for the final modern day scene.
Kate Unwin‘s set has a real warmth and lustre. The cotton bales prevail in every scene whether at the impoverished worker’s cottage or at the factory gates where the mill looms turn overshadowing every life in the town of Lawrence as they once did in Oldham itself. The changing backdrop of gorgeous red and indigo skyscapes are sumptuous and set the mood very well. The lighting and sound is evocative as scenes shift from the peaceful sounds of riverbank fishing with the idyll of crickets singing to the whirr and clamour of the looms.
This is a wonderful production to see in Oldham and would also make an excellent show to adapt for schools or colleges to perform. There is a strong political message from the past that resonates in our current society. We may need bread for sustenance but we have rarely been in so much need of roses such as this production.
Oldham Coliseum 22nd June – 7th July
Images by Joel Chester Flides