If you’re going to write a political play then it better be something that moves you, or angers you, or upsets you. Actor, writer, singer and producer Neil Gore felt all that and more when he wrote about one of the most scandalous and controversial incidents in the history of industrial relations.
United We Stand, which opens tonight at The CLF Art Café Theatre, Peckham, charts the story of The Shrewsbury 24 when a group building workers, were accused, and three jailed, of violent picketing and intimidating workers in Shropshire in 1973.
Among the group, and one of those jailed, was Ricky Tomlinson, who, on his release, changed careers, became and actor – and the Shameless star has never looked back. Only he does – with anger at what went on before.
He’s still campaigning for justice and even now, 42 years later, the police and government, won’t open secret official reports on their handling of the dispute.
Neil is passionate about social and political reform, and the power of influence and change through theatre. He and his partner, Louise, set up their own company, Townsend Productions, to stage work that mattered to them.
So far they have put on plays about the Chartist Movement, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the low paid (Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist played at the CLF recently), and The Shrewsbury 24.
Sharp and humorous, United We Stand tells the story behind the first national all-out strike where poorly paid building workers were accused of violence.
The two-hander stars Neil as Ricky and William Fox as colleague and friend, Des Warren.
Ahead of the opening Neil sat down with Stage Review to talk about the critically acclaimed drama.
Said Neil: “We toured with United We Stand last year and we’ve revived it because people wanted to see it again.
“We’re very much connected to social history, with Labour history and working class history. Those stories don’t often get told and these are the stories that are being eradicated from the National Curriculum.
“It’s a history being hidden away from young people, and from audiences. Political theatre, as it was in the 1970s – strong radical theatre – has now lost its way and died out.
“I don’t want to revive that but I want to tell these stories. They are absolutely key to understanding where we are now and where we could be in five or 20 years time.
“They are as much about the future as they are about the past and that’s why we tell them. Tony Benn said that every generation has the same fight. We have to pass on our experiences to the next generation or how else are they ever going to learn?
“We are deliberately asking difficult questions of our audiences but we aim to celebrate these stories. Our approach is sensitive but our theatre is fresh, accessible and fun and that’s important so that our message gets across. We want people to have a fun night out.
“But we do aim to open people’s eyes. There are people who have no idea what Ricky Tomlinson went through in the early 1970s or his time in prison. They are shocked and amazed.
“We concentrate on the stories of Ricky and Des Warren. At the first of three trials Ricky and Des got up to speak and that’s why the judge turned nasty on them.
“He gave Des three three-year sentences, to run concurrently, and Ricky three two-year sentences.
“They had both made fantastic speeches so that’s where I started when I wrote United We Stand.
“We went to the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign and they were naturally cautious and very suspicious. Sheila Coleman, who ran the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, loved our work so she went to them to explain what we wanted to do. She couldn’t recommend us highly enough.
“She told them to trust us with their story. In a story that involves the secret services, undercover operations, blacklisting, government skulduggery to the highest level – right up to the then PM Ted Heath – they are right to be careful.
“Des is dead now. He died from drug induced Parkinson’s Disease. When he was in prison he was given the liquid cosh (a controversial cocktail of drugs given to prisoners to pacify them) which contributed to his death.
“When in prison they refused to wear prison clothes, they wouldn’t shut their doors, they held dirty protests, they refused to eat. They made themselves the biggest pains in the arse because they didn’t believe they should be in prison.
“We take our story up to their trial but actually, after the trial, there’s a whole other play.
“Ricky was lucky. When he was released he couldn’t work in the building industry any more because he was blacklisted – so he ended up being an actor. But some of the other pickets never worked again”.
United We Stand opens tonight and runs at The CLF Art Café Theatre, the Bussey Building, Peckham, until November 14.