Grunwick Film Processing Laboratory in NW London was riven by a strike by 150 of its workforce in August 1976. The strikers, mainly Indian women and men, walked out in protest at exploitative and demeaning treatment - coerced into working overtime, having to put your hand up to ask to use the toilet, and sought to join the APEX trade union. Mrs Jayaben Desai, an E. African Indian forced with her husband to leave Uganda by the Idi Amin expulsions, and recently arrived in Britain, took up the strike cudgels following a confrontation with her boss.
Townsend Productions, a small but devoted political theatre group, is touring the country until well into the first half of 2018 with this musical Grunwick drama, and its 15 th tour date brought it on Thursday to a Ruskin College lecture room in Headington before an audience of nigh-on 100. Oxford is suffering a political theatre shortfall. It wholly escapes me why the University drama scene should all but ignore this rich source of subject matter. Rows about Cecil Rhodes' statue and freedom of religious expression for new students pop up and die down, and the debate about class, ethnicity and gender in the student profile rumbles on apparently in perpetuo, but good, old-fashioned agit-prop theatre remains as rare as a November swallow. I wish I could report that Ruskin College was buzzing with young people agog for the Grunwick experience; alas, you could count the under-30s on the fingers of one hand, with just about everyone else aged 45 or over.
form of the drama was almost as simple as the set which comprised a schematic frontage
of the Grunwick factory and chain link fencing that acted as demarcation
between strikers and the works, as well as giving the place the air of the
prison camp (and handy for hanging the time-honoured posters and placards that appeared
on cue like the cuckoo in spring). Neil Gore, who wrote the script, co-produced
with Louise Townsend and took on all but one of the male roles, kicked off with
a guitar ballad (tuneful but maybe a couple of verses too long, and to my mind
we heard a little too much of the same "Who Needs the Union?" ballad
later on). Then Mrs Desai (Medhavi Patel) set out her grievance in the context
of her work/home situation, first taking on the boorish and blustering manager
"You just need to calm down, darlin' ".
"I am not your darling!"
as he reasoned, then wheedled, then threatened, jabbing at his scrawl on the compulsory-overtime blackboard. Mrs Desai all but overwhelmed him with her exuberance, then harangued the audience as for the moment we the audience were transformed into the hitherto supine workforce. Holden, clutching at his tawdry dignity, announced blithely: "I'm not just the manager. I'm your rep on the works committee!"
So we marched on through the half-remembered stages of the two year dispute. Lock-out, union recognition, employers holding firm, the arrival of first pickets then flying pickets, police out in force, TUC speeches promising solidarity, and on to the chagrin of dwindling zeal and dispute closure. Ms Patel discovered after being cast that she was a distant relative of Mrs Desai. Did this add force to her portrayal? Whether or not, she gave this courageous woman terrific moral authority, never more so than when discoursing on the history of resistance under Gandhi and building to a tremendous climax.
Neil Gore was everywhere, gruesome as Holden, reasonable as Jack Dromey (Mr Harriet Harman) the union organizer full of good intentions and buzz phrases, fighting the good fight in his songs: "We'll sink the bloody bobbies; and the workers in control!", cartoonishly devious as Major John Gourier, the far-right anti-union activist, with a parody of the Major-General's song from The Pirates of Penzance. He was entirely plausible in every one of his guises. In his script I liked the way Mr Gore controlled the bitterness and bias of his viewpoint so that a sense of reasonableness and human understanding permeated the drama; never a hint of ruthless Stalinism here. Even his policeman, a temptingly hateful figure as per far left tradition, was permitted a touch of humour.
There were a few small points where I'd quibble with the artistic decisions. The play ran 10 minutes or so too long and slightly ran out steam at the end; one or two of Mrs Desai's speeches could have done with a bit of pruning, and I'd have preferred a bit more variety in the ballads. But judged as agit-prop theatre, ie. strong polemic and altogether a more sophisticated form than the street variety, this was admirable stuff. And just as admirable was the atmosphere in the room. My neighbours had travelled for the show from Morecambe Bay in Lancashire and Buxton in Derbyshire respectively, and the place was scattered with Socialist Worker folk, Communist Party members and Spanish Civil War memorialists. It buzzed with a sense of fraternity and receptiveness. How welcome as the country sleep-walks into Brexit, one minister announces that "this behaviour [groping] might have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago but is clearly not acceptable now", and another holds secret meetings with a view to stuffing Overseas Aid cash into the battledress pockets of the Israeli army.
"Good, fighting stuff!" said someone as we left. And so it was.