Historically political, or agitprop, theatre has been an outlet for the oppressed, angry or militant to express their fury at a regime or doctrine.
United We Stand, which opened this week at London’s CLF Art Café Theatre after a national tour, vents its rage against building industry bosses, the press, police and justice system.
At its heart is the story of the Shrewsbury 24, a group of pickets who were tried in 1973, after the end of the country’s first national strike in the building industry.
More importantly, it focuses on just two of its most famous faces, plasterer now actor Ricky Tomlinson and Communist union leader Des Warren, who were both jailed.
Written and acted by Neil Gore this propaganda piece has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the dialogue almost spat out with vehemence and bile.
The two-hander, which features folk, pop and protest songs, masquerades as entertainment but is, in reality, an blistering attack on the Establishment.
The satire is frequently strained as the pair, Gore and William Fox, can barely hold their contempt for the system.
The duo play a variety of minor roles – from pickets and plasterers to lawyers and judges – by swapping hats and jackets, and it’s very effective.
They also use actual strike footage, animated film clips and, strangely, snippets from the 1970s cowboy series Alias Smith and Jones (perhaps the writer sees Tomlinson and Warren as latter-day outlaws) to bolster the story.
Gore also gives us a clownish version of Tomlinson, complete with over-the-top Scouse accent, exaggerated mannerisms and terrible gags, while a fiery Fox is the passionate and committed “rabble-rouser” Warren.
United We Stand is less a play and more a political skit with the audience involved, talked to, invited to respond and, at times, take part.
Gore and Fox spend more time making speeches directly at the theatre-goers rather than interacting with each other.
And that’s its weakness. It’s a hugely emotive subject, and one which still raises hackles after 42 years, but, as a piece of theatre it tries to browbeat you with a lecture on injustice rather than engage you on a dramatic level.
In the 1970s the building industry was rife with workers paid “the lump” – cash in hand, no questions asked. Sites were unregulated and accidents common.
In the summer of 1972 300,000 building workers launched their first national strike in a bid to ensure a fair wage of £30 for a 35-hour week and union saturation. Organisers sent flying pickets to sites around the UK to amass support and, eventually, the major firms capitulated and everyone went back to work.
It was only months later that the police swooped and arrested 24 men who were charged with a Victorian law of conspiracy to intimidate. Of the group Warren and Tomlinson, who stood up in court to make impassioned speeches, and a third man, received prison sentences.
United We Stand accuses the bosses of conspiring with the police, press and judiciary, to bring the prosecution and the production once again raises the profile of the case.
Its story that is robustly delivered with Fox giving a standout performance as Des Warren. His courtroom speech, taken from the actual transcript, is powerful, full of indignation and immensely stirring. Gore, meanwhile, comes across more as an amiable entertainer, singing for his supper, rather than an actor engrossed in a role.
The play does a fine job of raising awareness but perhaps will find itself only preaching to the converted.
United We Stand Plays at the CLF Art Café Theatre, Peckham, until November 14.
Passionate and robustly told, United We Stand, tells a story of injustice and corruption that leads to the jailing of three men.