As the cuts bite and protests mount, London's fringe theatre is turning to American agit-prop musicals of the Depression era. At the Cock Tavern, there's Harold Rome's Pins and Needles, the only Broadway hit ever to be performed by a labour union. And now at the Arcola, we have Mehmet Ergen's stirring revival of The Cradle Will Rock, the radical pro-union musical by Marc Blitzstein.
This through-sung piece is set in the fictional Steeltown, USA, where wealthy steel magnate Mr Mister rules the roost by denying rights to his workers. On the night the latter meet to form a union, members of the so-called Liberty Committee of reactionary citizens are mistakenly arrested by an inept cop and as they languish in the police station, the musical puts them on trial via flashbacks for their collusion in his corrupt tyranny. These worthies range from the pliable church minister, who's prepared to preach peace or war according to the industrialist's financial needs, to the doctor suborned to lie that a factory worker's fatal accident was caused by drunkenness.
The acerbic satire at the expense of the show's emblematic (aka two-dimensional) villains has real vaudeville energy and Brechtian bite in Ergen's sparely staged, beautifully lit, and powerfully sung production. The hectoring indignation, jaunty defiance and vinegary verve of Blitzstein's score are conveyed with a stabbing drive in Bob Broad's excellent lone piano accompaniment. Rebuking the doctor and demanding justice for her traduced dead brother, Josie Benson's Ella sings with a thrillingly focused and inspiring intensity, while Chris Jenkins lends a virile animal magnetism to the role of Larry Foreman, the young union leader who knows he has the winds of change on his side.
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