This is the story of Jayaben Desai, the 1976-78 Grunwick strike instigator who walked out of the North-West London factory in support of a sacked co-worker, uttering the memorable phrase, We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager. Neil Gore’s retelling of this story is one equally full of passion and guts; one which honours and pays homage to a poignant moment in socialist history, in a decade when striking was the only way for the working class to be heard. But, for all its ferocity and righteousness, this production does not conjure the same level of heightened emotion needed to effectively paint a picture of the struggle that the strikers faced.
Desai (Medhavi Patel) is a gift to any writer – a character of strength and mettle, with inspirational quotes rich in evocative imagery. There is great potential here for a designer to run wild with their imagination, yet Carl Davies set is mundane and frayed by comparison. It depicts the state of affairs with dystopian accuracy, insufficient working conditions and premises left to rack and ruin. But there’s an unintentional shabbiness about the environment, which translates somewhat into an uneven performance. We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager isn’t about polish and sheen in its narrative, but Louise Townsend’s production feels a little too loose at times.
However, to comment entirely on the shortcomings of the show’s conceptual realisation would be to miss the entire point of this production. We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager holds a banner up to a key moment in strike history, a fight for equality in the workplace, conducted by a group of predominantly South Asian women. Both Patel and Gore want for nothing in their delivery. Patel captures the might of Desai in her performance – a woman brave enough to stand up to the misogynistic, capitalist patriarchy of the time and exclaim, “No More”! Her speeches are cutting, full of the bite and strength that many parts of the strike scenes lack. Gore depicts the ancillary roles, transforming from pantomime villain to supportive union secretary with satire and gusto. Townsend’s direction naturally involves the audience – this is a not a play with the safety of a fourth wall, but one in which the audience are encouraged to get involved and shout out. Desai is a figurehead of the people and we are her fellow picketers.
We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager is a contrasting performance. On the one hand, it deliberately eschews theatricality and sleekness in favour of the power of its message. Its corners are deliberately scuffed, a no frills show that depicts the ugliness and desperation of the time – you have to strike simply to be heard. But on the other, its impact waxes and wanes throughout, never quite entirely encapsulating the sense of unrest and frustration inherent in the likes of Desai to be heard.
Director: Louise Townsend
Producer: Townsend Productions
Writer: Neil Gore
Design: Carl Davies; Daniella Beattie (lighting)
Cast: Medhavi Patel; Neil Gore
We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager plays at Tara Arts until 25 November 2017 as part of a UK tour. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.