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From a Spark to a Flame
The Tolpuddle Martyrs story is one of enduring importance, especially in times like these. From a Spark to a Flame is a production dealing with the six farm labourers who, in 1832, dared to organise what we would now call a trade union, in order to better their pitiful lot.
The sale of grazing areas to wealthy capitalists meant ordinary men and women, used to sustaining themselves on public land, were forced to sell their labour power to landowners to survive. The cost of supporting a family was then 13 shillings a week. The efficiency of new machinery encouraged farm owners to cut wages to nine, seven, and eventually six shillings a week.
Agricultural workers were united by their struggle, forming a 'friendly society' to bargain pay collectively. The leaders faced mass persecution by landowners and judges, leading to their eventual deportation to Australia.
On 25 June this year, From a Spark to a Flame was performed to a full house at TUC Congress House. The performance was organised by Sertuc Theatre Club, an organisation that puts on plays of interest to working people. The Theatre Club aims to charge nothing for admission. This free production of From a Spark to a Flame was produced in association with local branches of youth drama company Theatretrain.
That day, the performers hailed from Basildon, Braintree, Colchester, Harlow, and Hertford branches of the company in the latest revival of a production that began life in 2002.
Created by Theatretrain's musical director, Robert Hyman, From a Spark to a Flame first played at London's Old Vic and went on to show at the annual Tolpuddle festival in Dorset.
These are two very different sorts of performance spaces, and Congress House conference hall is yet another. It shows the strength of the ensemble and the power of the story that the production can suit any space.
The Theatretrain branches flood the stage with a host of colourful characters as the story requires. Actors are backed by the rest of the ensemble in a swelling choir that invokes a spirit of mass, collective unity.
Actors on stage are even voiced by doubles in the choir. This bold choice by the directors gives the show a larger-than-life quality that fits the heroes and villains it is concerned with. A guiding narrator tells the story's key details while the ensemble gives life to the events through a series of scenes and musical numbers.
This hour long show follows the martyrs from their starveling beginnings, through their glorious victory, to the final emigration of five of the men to Canada. The performers' commitment was clear, particularly enjoyable was the obvious glee actors took in their portrayal of the dastardly capitalist villains!
This powerful tale of hope and collective victory is needed now more than ever, as a reminder that the Coalition's attacks on the lives of working people can be beaten through united action.
A must-see for anyone at this year's Tolpuddle Festival, from 15 to17 July, where the production will be shown again.
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