The swinging sixties might have launched the Beatles and the Stones and the Age of Aquarius, but it was also a time in which musicals with Victorian or Edwardian settings were a dime a dozen on Broadway and the West End. My Fair Lady and Oliver! are the most enduring and finest examples of these shows that appealed to audiences’ longings for ‘Lord love yer, ducks’ Cockneys and a seemingly simpler time – but of course the past is never simpler than the present, it’s only easier to idealise.
Tony Russell (music) and Bill Owen’s (lyrics and book) 1965 musical The Matchgirls tells the story of a fascinating piece of social history that took place in 1888, in which the employees of the Bryant and May matchstick factory in Bow attracted the support of Fabian journalist Annie Besant and went on strike (a gift to headline writers), after which their requests for better (as in less dire) working conditions were finally met. The story must have had a strong hold on the 1960s imagination as another musical based on the same events, Strike a Light, opened in the West End shortly after this one’s modest run.
Revived by Dumbwise, Red Ladder Theatre Company and Unite Education in commemoration of the one hundredth and twenty-fifth anniversary of the strike, and featuring a cast consisting of recent graduates (mostly from Rose Bruford) and members of the local community, the sense of East End history and the youth of these history-makers is the evening’s greatest strength. It’s possible that the extraordinary Wilton’s Music Hall, which has gone through many incarnations and was a soup kitchen at the time of the strike, gave these young women some respite from their wretched existences.
John Ward’s actor-musical production (George Bernard Shaw plays the accordion) highlights the sense of community linked together by shared hardships and gallows humour, and has a feeling of very much being a work-in-progress in spite of the piece’s age. As the heroine Kate, Laura Kirman is a heartfelt anchor of toughness and tenderness. The influence of original director and choreographer Gillian Lynne is evident in the elbows-and-swishing-skirts choreography (this was the first show that the prolific Lynne took dual creative duties on).
It feels futile to criticise the sentimentalisation of the subject matter; Lionel Bart probably would have treated the story in a similar manner, it’s just that his tunes and lyrics were better. Russell and Owen’s songs mostly consist of one verse on repeat, but some have their own effectiveness in evoking the soul- and body-destroying nature of the work and the rousing call to arms ‘We’re Gonna Show ‘Em’ is a precursor of sorts to ‘One Day More’ in Les Misérables and ‘Till We Reach That Day’ in Ragtime (though it was a strange decision to stage it at the rear of the auditorium).
As theatre, The Matchgirls doesn’t really succeed beyond being a piece of theatrical archaeology in spite of the cast and creative team’s valiant efforts. Nevertheless, the message is an important and sadly topical one (particularly following the recent factory disaster in Bangladesh) as some conditions remain as atrocious as those in Victorian London and human beings continue to be sacrificed for profit.
For more information about Wilton’s Music Hall, please click here.