Review: STRIKE!, Southwark Playhouse Borough

Heartwarming comedy-drama that lacks a contemporary perspective

By: Apr. 18, 2023
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Review: STRIKE!, Southwark Playhouse Borough

Review: STRIKE!, Southwark Playhouse Borough It won't have passed you by that strikes are in the news just now, public sector workers partying on the picket lines like it's 1979. "A last resort" is often the description used for such action (I heard it trotted out on the radio yesterday), but it isn't always just that.

Sometimes a union has to show that it (and its members) will not accept anything the management says and resist now to warn management and stiffen spines for the future. And, without that reining in of capital's power over labour, we would still have children working over ten hours a day. You don't believe me? Well, in countries where such regulations have not been won, they do.

Based on a true story, Tracy Ryan's Strike! takes us back to the 80s (cue Prince and Frankie tunes on the scene changes) for a different kind of strike. In the Dublin branch of Dunne's (always described as Ireland's Marks and Spencer), shop assistants walk out having refused, as their union so directed, to handle South African products - Outspan oranges, Cape apples etc. Here is a strike rooted in an issue of global concern - the Apartheid state - and resonating strongly with local folk memories of the oppression of an indigenous population by incomers, the backwash of The Famine still felt in Ireland and in the diaspora.

A caricature boss digs his heels in, two weeks becomes two months becomes two years and everyone, as the 21st century expression has it, grows. Shadowing Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom, camaraderie flourishes, "ordinary people" become international causes célèbres and the regime in South Africa totters, but doesn't quite fall.

A fine ensemble cast give everything to their roles. Chloe O'Reilly is sweetness itself in her coy courting of Adam Isla O'Brien, the only boy on the line, all self-effacing charm. Jessica Regan is no-nonsense personified as the supervisor and Paul Carroll has a lot of fun doubling as the decent union rep and nightmarish boss. Mensah Bediako brings a dignified fortitude to the much-needed African voice on stage, an activist in exile and in pain.

At 100 minutes or so all-through and leavened with plenty of laughs, director Kirsty Patrick Ward keeps the pace high, but she's hamstrung by a couple of structural issues that can't really be overcome once boxed into the format.

Though people of my age cannot walk through Trafalgar Square without seeing the 24/7 protest outside South Africa House in their mind's eye, anyone under 40 might require a refresher on what it was all about. That necessitates slabs of exposition that risk falling awkwardly between being not enough for the twentysomethings and too much for the fiftysomethings. There are certainly times when the vibe gets a little too close to Theatre-In-Education (and there's something of TiE's ethos in Ardent Theatre's mission, printed in the programme) and one feels back in the lecture hall or at union conferences, for which an ANC speaker was a mandatory participant for years.

The second issue is the fraught matter of "White Saviour Complex". None of us really thought about it much back then, boycotting Barclays bank, reading labels for country of origin info, checking the discarded boxes at the back of the market stalls - we were doing our bit and felt good about it. But in the 40 years or so since, the self-satisfaction accessible to the privileged in displaying their consciences, has become more understood, more complicated.

Though the strikers did suffer from loss of income (as strikers do), the bitter lyrics of the song "Holiday in Cambodia" were never far from my mind in watching the play. Though the horrors of Apartheid are not ignored, they do sometimes get swept away a little in the "Let's put on a high school musical" atmosphere that permeates the play. I can imagine some of those who grew up in Soweto wondering where they are, as the Irish kids turn up in New York and get hugs from Desmond Tutu.

That's how it was then, but, in 2023, changes in the cultural climate direct us to a rounder consideration of the Anti-Apartheid struggle. With that in mind, this dramedy is a little too keen on cuddly salt-of-the-earth working class heroes and not keen enough on examining what such actions meant then and, in an age of more individualised protest, what they mean now.

Strike! at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 6 May

Photo Credit: Mark Douet


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