STRIKE! at the Southwark Playhouse
“There are more laughs than might be expected balanced with a poignancy that brought some of this audience close to tears”
Ardent Theatre Company presents the story, written by Tracy Ryan, of nine Irish shopgirls and one shop boy who after refusing to handle South African goods embark on nearly three years of strike action which culminates in a landmark ruling from the Irish parliament.
The set is effectively simple (Designer Libby Watson): a set of double doors in front of which a picket line will be formed for much of the action. The name of the Dublin store Dunnes is spelt out in coloured lights. A monochrome outline of what will become South Africa’s national flag is painted out on the floor.
The story starts within the store itself and a group of high-spirited shop girls are preparing to start work, changing their clothes into the regulation shop uniform. One of them, Mary Manning (Chloe O’Reilly) is about to change their lives forever when following an edict from their Union, she refuses to handle a South African grapefruit. She is duly suspended by the shop management and a walk out in solidarity from all the shopgirls ensues.
From time to time, a narrator tells us where we are. Karen (Jessica Regan) ably takes the brunt of this task but the role is nicely shared around other characters. There are two stories being told here. Firstly, that of the camaraderie and resilience of the striking shop-workers and then that of the bigger picture, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Amidst much light-heartedness, a dignity is provided with the arrival of Nimrod Sejake (Mensah Bediako), a South African exile of twenty years and former prison mate of Nelson Mandela. From him the shop-workers (and the audience) learn of the horrors of the apartheid regime and why the strike really matters.
As the story progresses, we learn small bits about each of the strikers in turn. Much amusing repartee forms around the effervescent Liz (Anne O’Riordan); Vonnie (Doireann May White) is in danger of losing her house; Tommy (Adam Isla O’Brien) is beaten up by the Garda in a brilliantly danced solo scene with effective blood red spotlighting (Lighting Designer Jamie Platt). Versatile Paul Carroll takes up the double roles of sleazy tie-fiddling shop manager Paul and Union Leader Brendan with just the change of a sweater and a restyling of his hair.
But this is predominantly an ensemble piece and the slick movement of the group, directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, is excellent and the sharing of dialogue fluent. Small set pieces within the narrative provide dramatic variety. The ensemble don headscarves to become a group of angry mothers, sport plastic bags and umbrellas for a scene in the rain, sing a beautifully performed rendition of trade union folk classic Which Side Are You On?
There is much to be enjoyed here in a non-stop ninety minutes. There are more laughs than might be expected balanced with a poignancy that brought some of this audience close to tears. The tale is well-presented, brilliantly performed, and, at the same time, both genuinely moving and entertaining.
Reviewed on 17th April 2023
by Phillip Money
Photography by Mark Douet
Previously reviewed at Southwark Playhouse: