Theatre: We Are the Lions, Mr Manager
Dramatic retelling of Grunwick strike hits all the right notes
Bill Mullins, Southwark Socialist Party
This marvellous little play about Jayaben Desai, leader of the famous Grunwick strike, hits all the right notes in its retelling of one of the most important struggles in the turbulent 1970s.
Neil Gore’s script works to traditional agitprop methods of bringing the events to life, but never loses anything of the dramatic and emotional battle led by Jayaben throughout the strike.
Grunwick was a defining strike. It encapsulated much of the 1970s’ struggles by the working class against the employers’ offensive.
What was special about it was that the bosses of the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in north London had deliberately set out to only employ mainly Asian women workers. They thought they could push them around more and so super-exploit their labour.
It was the courage of Jayaben and others that brought about a battle by these low-paid workers. They took strike action in response to the inhuman conditions imposed on them by George Ward, the owner of the factory.
Medhavi Patel’s Jayaben is excellent. So is Neil’s portrayal of a whole host of characters – particularly Jack Dromey, who was then on the left and secretary of Brent trade union council.
Both Neil and Medhavi act their hearts out with real compassion. They bring the whole period vividly to life during the couple of hours they are onstage.
Director Louise Townsend’s production makes imaginative use of limited props, such as wheeling on a factory fence which portrays the pickets themselves. Footage played in the background makes up for the small size of the cast.
At one stage, Jayaben calls on the first row of the audience to join her on stage to take part in the events of the mass picket of 11 July 1977.
The play also brings out the diabolical nature of the Grunwick bosses and their right-wing supporters in the shadowy ‘National Association for Freedom’.
But importantly, it features the massive support of workers throughout the country for the struggle. This includes the heroic role of postal workers at the local depot – who refused to allow sacks of mail containing processed film to go back to customers.
What was heart-breaking, though, was the cowardly role of the trade union leaders.
There was the right-wing leadership of Apex, the union the strikers joined (now part of general union GMB) and the invidious role of Trade Union Congress leaders. Throughout the strike, in the background, they tried to undermine it – because it was embarrassing to the Labour government.
Neil often accompanies his presence onstage with musical renderings – socialist songs from the time, and his own creations as well.
The name of the play – “We Are the Lions, Mr Manager” – refers to Jayaben’s confrontation with the manager “Mr Jack.” She responded to his slur that the factory was like a zoo with “in the zoo, Mr Jack, there are many animals.
“Some are monkeys you can dance on your fingers, and some are lions. We are the lions, Mr Jack, and we will eat you.”
We Are the Lions, Mr Manager is touring the country into 2018. Visit townsendproductions.org.uk for details.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 30 November 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.