It never ceases to amaze me how events of the past can still have the capacity to strike a chord with us today. The subject matter of Oldham Coliseum’s current production of Bread & Roses should hardly resonate with the good folk in this part of the world. After all it concerns events surrounding the mill-workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA in 1912. Yet, despite the happenings occurring over a 100 years ago, the lessons from those times are as relevant today as they were back then.
Bread & Roses was the end product after Chief Executive & Artistic Director, Kevin Shaw, commissioned Ian Kershaw to write a state-of-the-nation play. Kershaw was inspired by the story of the first mass strike by unskilled workers in the USA. The strike was led by women who ‘fought their way through to the front of the demonstrations’. It was not just known as the Bread and Roses strike but also thanks to the songs of Joe Hill as ‘The Singing Strike’.
Kershaw’s play – or should that be musical, for it has 14 songs in it, but more of that later – introduces us to protagonist Lucy Rose Atkins, a single mother and mill worker who is struggling to make ends meet in those impoverished times. William Dukes is the antagonist of this feature, the typical greedy exploitative mill owner who sees people as a means to making a profit. Atkins is cleverly juxtaposed to Dukes exploitative meanderings as she forms strong bonds within the community. For as much as this is a story of rebellion in the early 20th century it is primarily a play about people and of hope.
It is easy to draw comparisons in this day and age if you sit down and think about it. We are not too dissimilar to those mill workers from yesteryear, after all this part of the world is famed for its own mills. What’s more, we are living through tough times ourselves. These times of austerity has seen a rise in homelessness, food banks are becoming much more prevalent in communities, universal credit and zero hour contracts are just some of the conditions faced by workers of today. And that my dear readers is just the tip of the iceberg.
Oldham Coliseum is one of those hidden gems that you feel should be championed more. Away from the big city and bright lights its lustre is perhaps dulled to those that seek to be illuminated by more established stars. It’s personified by its charm. A small but cosy auditorium gives the audience a real feel of the play. More than that, it goes beyond just the experience. Here is a theatre that is pushing the boundaries of its art. It is not content to rest on its laurels or cater for a specific audience.
It is unsurprising then for you to learn, dear reader, that the production is a polished performance. Amanda Huxtable’s excellent direction never really lets the play veer too far off kilter allowing the likes of Emma Naomi to radiate in her role as the heroine Adkins. There are other notable performers with the like of Oliver Wellington playing the tormented Cal Jackson, the recognizable Tupele Dorgu lavishly laying it on as the union rep Elizabeth Flynn and Claire Burns and her fine singing voice almost stealing the show as the doomed Anna LoPiazzo.
That is not to say that this play is without faults. It is by no means perfect. I also found the musical elements to this piece oddly one dimensional at times that was only rescued by a phenomenal second act with some show stopping tunes. Nonetheless, sometimes we need to look past the imperfections and focus on the overall vibe of what we are watching. Here is a captivating production with themes that most people can identify with, performances that enrapture and ultimately leaves most of those that have had the pleasure to sit through it a strong message of hope long after the final curtain has come down!
Verdict: A polished musical production that on the face of it deals with events that happened in the USA in 1912, but the themes are as relevant today as they were in the past. Strong performances all round from the cast and some belting show-tunes that will have you humming all the way home.