Bread and Roses is the much anticipated production at Oldham Coliseum directed by Amanda Huxtable. The Coliseum asked local writer Ian Kershaw to create “a play about the things that are going on right now – a state of the nation play”. Based on this brief it may surprise you that Kershaw decided to write about a pay dispute between mill workers and owners in Lawrence, Massachusetts back in 1912.The setting was created by Kate Unwin’s design and consisted of the interior of a wooden construct home, the entrance to the mill that much of the story revolves around, cotton bales dotted around the stage and turning cogs against a smoke filled sky – the set worked perfectly and gives you a real feel what 1912 Massachusetts was like.
The production opened with the whole cast slowly filling the stage, each of them joining in with the rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” as they walked on and straight away the audience knew that this was going to be a night filled with top quality musical arrangement.
The story was focused mainly on Lucy-Rose Atkins (Emma Raomi) who is one of the mill workers and a single parent working very long hours for very little money. She is finding it almost impossible to put food on the table for her and her daughter Ruby.
The mill workers union (the IWW or ‘Wobblies’ as they are more commonly referred to) have managed to get new legislation introduced to slightly reduce their working week to 54 hours (from 56 hours) but in response mill owner William Dukes (Matthew Ganley) speeds up the machines and reduced their wages. This introduced us to local activist Joe Ettor (Rupert Hill) who is desperately campaigning for the mill workers and Cal Jackson (Oliver Wellington), a newly recruited machine mechanic who we later found out was also spying for Dukes.
The arrival of national activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Tupele Dorgu) to help the cause was when the fight really went into full force as she convinced Lucy-Rose to take a more active role in the battle against the mill owners. Lucy-Rose also found herself in a relationship with Jackson, one of the many people taking money from Dukes as he controls the mayor, the local press and the local police – he always gets his own way. Ultimately this control gave Lucy-Rose the inspiration for her master plan to defeat Dukes and his fellow mill owners.
The storyline was complimented by a brilliant soundtrack of acoustic songs – many of whom were written by Joe Hill who was a member of the IWW during this period. The arrangement from Musical Director Howard Gray is superb. He is also well assisted by a very talented cast of actor/musicians who seamlessly step into the background to play guitar, banjo, piano and even harmonica to provide the music and firmly put the spotlight on some stunning vocal performances.
The fight between mill workers and owners from 1912 is not one that we are very familiar with in the UK, but the parallels with modern day life are incredible – workers on zero hour contracts with very little rights, workers having to rely on handouts and charity despite having jobs, people being exploited and not paid a living wage. This is something Kershaw clearly spotted very early and he has exploited this brilliantly in his script. In the end the audience didn’t need the speech at the end from Claire Burns (who played worker Anna LoPizza) to connect New England in 1912 and Britain in 2018 – we all saw it for ourselves.
Bread and Roses is a story of hope and inspiration – it is based on a true life story and therefore has some credibility but most of all it is a really entertaining production with some amazing vocal performances (most notably from Claire Burns and Sophie Mercell) and a very well written script by an accomplished writer. It continues to play at the Oldham Coliseum for the next 2 weeks and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.
Reviewer - John Fish
on – 22/6/18
on – 22/6/18