Bread & Roses – Oldham Coliseum

Sophie Mercell, Tupele Dorgu, Emma Naomi and Oliver Wellington

Bread & Roses is a musical re-telling of the inspiring story of the 1912 mill workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Beginning as a local struggle to claw back the bare minimum of subsistence, it became the vehicle for the collective empowerment of a disparate and traditionally powerless workforce: women, children, immigrants. And against a background of exploitation, misogyny, racism and violence, it is essentially a story about the transformative power of hope.

A beautifully designed set (Kate Unwin) and lighting scheme (Stewart Bartles) frame the narrative: brick mill gates and whirring machinery stand imposingly at stage right, contrasting with a mill worker’s ramshackle home on the left, a solitary rocking chair at its centre. Bales of cotton are rolled on and off, variously representing beds, tables, podiums or coffins. And as the story unfolds, the swirling backdrop changes colour – darkening threateningly at one moment and, in the next, softly illuminating the stage with moonlight.

The story is simple. The tyranny of the mill-owners is stark, and their gloating injustice seems unassailable. But the courage, conviction and friendship of the workers – especially the women – gradually moves them beyond impotent rage into strategic, and successful, political action. While the financial stakes may be meagre – 2 hours’ wages in a context where a whole weeks’ wages amount to less than $9 – the symbolic and personal significance is immeasurable. We see this especially through the character of Lucy-Rose Atkins (brilliantly played by Emma Naomi). A single mother drawn into the fray out of sheer desperation, Lucy-Rose’s fierce intelligence and nerve turn out to be more than a match for the brute power and greed of the mill-owner. Reluctantly manoeuvred into speaking at a strike meeting, her speech is initially stuttering and peppered with apologies before becoming a rousing, fluent and impassioned argument for persistence and hope. It is a pivotal moment, as this politically invisible young woman finds her voice, and, with it, a new and effective place in the world. Stirring stuff.

The music (directed by Howard Gray) gives the story a further level of poignancy and power. Drawing on the musical traditions of both protest and gospel, the arrangements and singing are exquisite and provide some of the most moving moments in the play. From the opening rendition of Auld Lang Syne – sung softly in candlelight with glorious harmonies – to the extraordinary Ain’t no grave can hold my body down (sung by Claire Burns) and haunting She’s a rebel girl (sung by Lauryn Redding), the performances are individually and collectively stunning.

The production is tightly directed (by Amanda Huxtable) and feels very polished, though some of the staging is rather static and two-dimensional. The stepping-forward-to-face-the-audience singing positions feel particularly dated and stiff. However, the auditorium is used to very good effect, drawing the audience in at key moments by placing the actors around and amongst us. There are also some beautiful moments on stage – most notably, those involving the murdered Anna’s ghostly presence.

Bread & Roses concludes with a modern-day Anna addressing the audience directly, telling us all the ways in which this play is relevant to today’s social and political landscape – an obvious example being the continued struggle for a living wage and the increased reliance on food banks by many who are in work. While I am in total agreement with everything she says, I can’t help feeling that the point would have been made more powerfully if we had been trusted, as an intelligent and informed audience, to draw the lines to the present for ourselves. Things implied but left unsaid sometimes make more visceral emotional connection, and they avoid the risk of feeling patronised. That said, Bread & Roses is a thoroughly enjoyable, timely and uplifting reminder of the power of hope, courage and solidarity at a time when divisiveness and bleakness sometimes seem to be the order of the day. And if they make the soundtrack available, I will be first in line to buy it.

Photography by Joel Chester Fildes

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