Arcs of Change, Death and Renewal

The Salford Docker is a bold attempt to revive the spirit of radical community theatre that was a part of Britain's working-class life for many decades.

This is not so much a review, as a celebration. Political community theatre changes people’s lives and strengthens our movement. It has a rich history in workers’ struggle across the globe, and in Britain its impact on community and industrial organising was significant through the last century. It remains one of the few places where working-class history is explored and celebrated, and its ability to make us feel, think about, and work collaboratively on pressing issues is unparalleled. 

I’m not talking about mainstream theatre, which usually operates at a disconnect from its locality, but theatre built by and for community, that involves ordinary people and responds to their lived experiences. Trawling dusty archives and old journals reveals the effectiveness and reach of the political strand of this work, with shows and sketches seen by tens of thousands in the 1920s-1930s and again in the 1960s-1970s in regional theatres and community halls, or on rallies, picket lines and the factory floor. Responses to the work were effusive, while attacks on left theatre companies by the far-right only serve to underscore its impact. Despite this, whether you’re an activist or drama student, you’re lucky if you’ve heard about it. Years of neoliberalism have not only driven down living and working conditions but have systematically supressed cultural forms that support a more equal society. 

This background is just one of the reasons why Salford Community Theatre is such a big deal. Founded in 2016, the company use working-class histories of Salford to make hard-hitting politically relevant plays with a large local cast, most of whom have not acted before. The company adopt the late Ann Jellicoe’s model of the Community Play, involving the audience in the action as they walk around the theatre space to encounter scenes up-close. Their latest sell-out show, The Salford Docker, took place in The Lighthouse Venue in Salford on the 8th-13th July and was seen by around 500 people. The script by Sarah Weston is based on interviews she conducted with dock-workers and families from the area, and charts the history of industrial, economic and ideological change in Britain since the 1950s.

The Salford Docker is presented through a central character, Anna, who works at a radio station in Salford Quays and whose family history is in dock work. Tasked by her producer to create a ‘Radio Ballad’ on the subject, her journey into that history, primarily through interviews with dockworkers, manifests as the play the audience experience across two acts. There is pressure on Anna to focus on a ‘family angle’, but she is fascinated by the complex social and political contexts that shaped the family histories she uncovers. ‘I’m more interested in arcs of change, death and renewal,’ she says. This combination of personal and political circumstances is the substance of the play and the vehicle through which the audience invest in the historical detail. 

Act One dramatises an unofficial strike on the docks in 1951, when two brothers, John and Patrick Ryan, were unfairly suspended for refusing to work overtime. In the lead up to the dispute short scenes performed across the space introduce us to a vibrant community and the nexus of tensions underpinning their relationships. Despite its focus on the male world of the docks, the play revolves around women, whose relationships with men symbolise the entrapment of patriarchal and capitalist oppression beyond the remit of industrial labour. John’s daughter Clara suffers in an abusive relationship with docker Jack Burns, while her cousin Eleanor forms a tender friendship with immigrant labourer Ayush. Single mother Evelyn, unable to make ends meet, slowly starves while awaiting the improbable return of the Norwegian seaman who got her pregnant.

Moments of intimacy, community, hardship and isolation are depicted vividly. The audience are welcomed into the tight-knit community as we take seats in pub scenes and join political meetings. We gather closely around Eleanor and Ayush as though for warmth after shuddering beside the long and freezing queue for coal. We stand stock still watching Evelyn, silhouetted at the top of a large scaffold structure in the centre of the space, which represents the docks, before the workers talk her down and make excuses for her when the police arrive.

The act gathers force around the call to strike action, delivered so compellingly by the union chairman that the hands of the audience fly up in the air to vote along with those of the actors. Prospects look to brighten at the end of the act as dockers march triumphantly back to work after an historic win, their demands met. The Labour council pledge financial aid to the dockers, Clara has left Jack, and Eleanor thinks of joining the Party. Thing finally seem to be improving for working folk as the dockers burst into song. 

To access Act Two we have to pass through the docks scaffold to the other side of the performance space. This marks a leap in time — it is the 1970s and the docks are hit by the onset of containerisation. Mechanised, awkward movements of a few men lifting light cargo replaces the hustle and bustle of Act One, and demonstrates the scarcity of work and wasted potential of automation. Loss of community is represented but also felt. I realised with a jolt at the beginning of this act that I would not see the family histories resolved that were traced so carefully before the interval. That is, all but one.

It turns out Clara married a kindlier docker in the end, and the feminist firebrand of this act is their daughter Angie, whose theft of Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique from the University library is executed with comedic precision. The update on class and gender politics is serious, however: working-class women are excluded from educational opportunity. Angie’s brother Steven is the only family member destined for university, despite Angie’s fierce intelligence and curiosity.

On the docks the reduced and demoralised workforce nevertheless join the national wave of demonstrations in solidarity with the Pentonville 5. The audience are swept into the commotion of a flying picket and hold the line through scuffles with police. We also anticipate the demolishing of homes in the Ordsall Clearance Scheme at a farewell party for Harry Street, where one of the residents makes a speech. ‘Who decided my home was a slum dwelling and unfit for habitation?’ she asks indignantly, before predicting that tower blocks and new builds will dominate a future without street parties, without neighbours. Ewan MacColl’s Ballad for Trafford Road, which we also heard in the first act, is repeated so sweetly now that it takes my breath away — not only because the generations we’ve got to know become connected through song, but because it draws sharply into view the destruction of community in the ongoing business of imperialist war.

Soon the docks stand empty, save for a final scene, where Steven returns from university and finds his father and brother at the top, looking out over Ordsall. Visually this echoes Evelyn’s stance in Act One, but the slow death of familial connection to an ethos of self-improvement offers nothing so dramatic. Nor is there anyone around to offer a helping hand. Only the audience, who stare up in silence. 

The play’s epic structure refuses catharsis, as does the audience’s movement around the space and the role of the community actor. As we watch the show, we see our neighbours, people many of us recognise from everyday life, but also the characters they are playing and the enigmatic actors they have become, who are capable of consistent and compelling performances every night. This provides a productive ‘estrangement’ of the kind Brecht discussed. When the ordinary is made extraordinary we see that everything is subject to change, and when the stars of Salford are people like us it stands to reason that it must be us who are capable of making that change. 

The most radical aspect of Salford Community Theatre’s work, though, lies the process of theatre-making. The company talk about their rehearsals as ‘rejecting individualism and re-learning collectivity’. Like the dockers interviewed for the script, actors describe gaining pride and deep connection through their collective labour. Cast member Beth Redmond explains that ‘We had the basic foundations of a socialist society instilled in us throughout the process of making the play’. She locates this experience in the basic ethos of the rehearsal room: ‘If anything went wrong, we would quickly get over it and work together to make it better again. …We understood that solidarity means not leaving anyone behind’.

Talking to other members of the company I found these views commonplace, and it is born out in their activity. The company don’t just perform together but somehow, around jobs and other commitments, they hang out together, and refer to the company as a ‘family’. The Salford Docker is agitprop theatre in the best tradition, but the genius of its directors Steph Green and Sarah Weston is the facilitation of personal bonds that underpin collective action outside the well-worn but narrow avenues of the left.

Neoliberalism, even as it crumbles at its core, enforces an economic and ideological regime so pervasive it can seem insurmountable. We must be vigilant, then, in keeping its pressure points in view, and revealing at every opportunity its most closely guarded secret, which is the collective power of the working class. Theatre does this, not only by disseminating information but by exploding experiences of isolation and distrust that neoliberalism relies on, replacing this with something infinitely more satisfying, more human. 

As Redmond points out, ‘the left goes some way to combat the increasing isolation we face, but falls short when it comes to creating our own sustainable communities’. Political theatre in Britain has never recovered from its strangulation in the 1980s by the Thatcher government, and these days financial and even intellectual support for this kind of work is extremely scarce. The seriousness with which those with a vested interest in maintaining power take this practice should be marked by the organised left, who need to address urgently the task of supporting it in any way they can. 

This is not only a celebration, then, but a call to action. Historically, links between the labour movement and left theatre companies were strong, and we should take heed. Political culture is not an add-on or afterthought to organising but the lifeblood of movements and to ignore this is to be gravely negligent.