A couple of times a year, I will see a piece of theatre that is thoughtful, passionate, heart-breaking and utterly uplifting; 'On Behalf of the People' at the Sale Waterside last night, was one of these occasions.
Written by Ray Castleton (who graduated from Leeds University with a BA in Performing Arts at the age of 63), and developed by Yorkshire based theatre company The Melting Shop, the story unfolds in the coal fields of south Yorkshire at the end of WWII against the backdrop of nationalisation in the coal industry and the birth of the welfare state after 1945.
The lens through which we view these seismic political changes is the Mason family; George (Ray Ashcroft), his wife Connie (Kate Wood), their son Tom (Danny Mellor) and his fiancé Liz (Lizzie Frain). Tom has returned from the war to his pit village initially uncertain about his future plans and harbouring guilt over the death of his brother Judd during the fighting. He is desperate for the approval of his stern father, a miner and union leader, who blames him for the death of his son and wishes him to carry on the proud tradition of the family. His girlfriend Liz has a different view of their future together and her experience of working during the conflict has liberated her view and raised her ambitions beyond life as a miner’s wife.
These personal stories entwine with events during the period and brilliantly illustrate the effect that the social welfare changes in the period had. Plentiful and decently paid work gives financial dignity to the Mason family, new housing provides stability for the future and the National Health Service means that Tom and Liz's children are born safely and George is looked after, as his health fails after decades of service in the mine.
The portrayals of the various members of the family were at the heart of this outstanding production. Ashcroft plays George initially as a man as hard as the coal he digs from the seam, his views on politics and morality are unbending and unyielding. He morphs the character into a sympathetic ailing old man with pathos and his descent is heart rending to observe. Kate Wood as Connie displays the tender heart of the family and evokes warm recognition in the audience for her fussy sympathy and quiet strength, resembling a Yorkshire Hilda Ogden in both character and physicality. Danny Mellor allows the character arc of Tom to shine, showing him to be a strong leader and emerging from the shadow of his father. Finally Lizzie Frain displays Liz's uncertainty at a woman’s place in the family and the modern world, before confidently growing into a strong modern women. All these actors brought a naturalistic style, faultless accent and physicality to their performances and the intimacy of the setting made it feel like the audience were observing real conversations in the Mason household.
Director Charlie Kenber has been touring this production around a number of hugely differing venues over the last year and the staging and minimal props allow ingenious flexibility and the focus to fall squarely on the language of the play. The small cast is supplemented by Kenber artfully utilising the audience as an ensemble for the show. At various points we are a political meeting, a funeral party and a union delegation, with the actors talking directly and sitting amongst us, creating an immersive experience that engages everyone in an informal way.
There is little doubt which side of the political divide the writer sympathised with, and this polemical style of writing is designed to fan the partisan soul of the audience. I would argue that it is much more grounded in realism than the 'Ken Loach' style of liberalism, demonstrating a true feeling for the working class with all its faults and virtues and has resonance as a consequence.
As the old slogan says, 'All politics is personal', and I doubt this piece would be as big a hit in Maidenhead or Milton Keynes as it was in Barnsley or Bolsover. However, this audience in a middle class suburb of Manchester were moved to a lengthy standing ovation, and a reminder of the relevance of community and collective action is hugely timely in our current political climate.
Exquisitely written and performed, I urge you to see this superb production wherever you get the chance.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 10th July 2018
North West End Rating: ★★★★★