Review: Rouse Ye Women – The Story of Mary Macarthur and the Women Chainmakers, by Townsend Theatre Productions.
I’ll be very upfront about it – I loved this play. Described as a ‘folk ballad opera’, and written by John Kirkpatrick and Neil Gore, this production made me feel like I was there with the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath, ready to drop tools alongside them, join the union and demand fairer pay.
Key to creating that feeling was the incredible performance by Bryony Purdue, who plays ‘angel of the workers’, Mary Macarthur, who has long been a shero of mine. I was captivated by Purdue’s performance which exuded the intense charisma and passion one imagines Mary to have had. I don’t know if it’s because I was sat on the front row, or because of the clever construct of the performance – which utilised the audience almost as extra characters – but I was entirely caught up in the thing! The soap box call-to-arms, the rousing union chorus – which before long we were all (the audience that is) caught up singing too: it all gave such a sense of what it may have felt like to have been involved with the union movement and the chainmakers’ strike at the time.
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between music and protest (I wrote my dissertation about this very thing at university.) Folk music has always been the music of the people and of protest, and it was a complete pleasure to listen to the songs which have been written to tell this story. I thought that it was such a perfect example of what power such songs have to get the audience singing along – refrain’s that are easy enough for people to pick up quickly and raise their voices together with are exactly why this type of music is so intertwined with protest. It felt special to be invited to join in, and it spread the magic of all uniting behind one cause.
The story itself is hugely inspiring and moving without having to try very hard – women working all the hours they could in sweated labour – hand hammering chains in their homes to make ends meet – whilst also caring for their children and husbands, never a moment’s rest (perfectly depicted in The Outworker’s Song – performed by Rowan Godel at the start of the first act); women who were constantly taken advantage of by their ‘foggers’ and paid a pittance for their toil. And Mary Macarthur, founder of the National Federation of Women Workers – and passionate about the rights of working women. Who tirelessly campaigned to improve pay and conditions for women all over the UK. The story of the coming together of the two which eventually led to a 10 week strike by the chainmakers, resulting in huge public sympathy and a significant increase to the women’s wages. It’s a story of the power of unity and victory against the odds, and I felt very emotional at times throughout the play, truly the courage of these women, and the conviction of Mary Macarthur deeply moved me.
Rouse Ye Women has just begun an extensive tour which is running throughout March & April (see tour dates here). I couldn’t recommend enough that you go out and see it, and I defy you not to be swept up in the moment and leave feeling inspired, empowered and ready to join a union (or a folk band)!
Find out more…
Read more about Mary Macarthur on the Sheroes of History blog here.
Find out more about the Cradley Heath Chainmaker’s strike here
Also, look out for our friend, Cathy Hunt’s upcoming book Mary Macarthur 1880-1921 The Working Woman’s Champion: Righting the Wrong – which is sure to be a treat! Cathy has also previously written for the Sheroes of History website about Julia Varley, another campaigner who worked alongside Mary Macarthur and was involved in the chainmakers’ strike.
Each year in Cradley Heath a Chainmakers’ Festival is still held to commemorate the striking women, find out more about this year’s festival here.