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The Theatreguide.London Review

Cable Street
Southwark Playhouse  Spring 2024

Several plays and musicals have celebrated the 1936 battle of Cable Street, when a community of mainly Jewish and Irish people refused to allow Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) to provocatively march through their area of London.

Among them is Tracy-Ann Oberman and Brigid Armour’s adaptation of Merchant of Venice 1936 currently being performed in the West End.

Southwark Playhouse has added to the subject with the almost sold-out, one-hundred-and-fifty-minute new musical Cable Street, which combines the uplifting music and lyrics of Tim Gilvin with the clear and sensitive book of Alex Kanefsky.

The story centres on three families with a cast of eleven mostly playing multiple parts.

The young  Mairead (Sha Dessi) lives with her Irish Catholic family, works in a bakery and is actively involved with the Communist Party. Always friendly and engaging, she manages to casually slip into her conversations a fair number of quotes from Marx.

She gradually becomes romantically interested in Sammy, a Jewish man living with his family but trying to get work by at times passing as non-Jewish.

Also unemployed are his next-door neighbours the English non-Jewish Ron (Danny Colligan) and his Mother.

The lack of work is compounded by a wave of evictions sweeping the area by landlords wanting to raise rents.

While Sammy is drawn to Mairead and the anti-fascist activities of the Communist Party, Ron’s rage finds its outlet in the BUF.

The show opens on the thrust stage with a brief scene in which an older woman arrives from America to the contemporary East End of London to see the place where her relative, a successful writer and poet, came from. We later realise this is one of the characters we see in the events of 1936.

There is an upbeat feel to most of the songs, which have a sound that would fit easily in the West End and thoughtful lyrics connected to what’s happening, though they generally don’t further the plot or add depth to the characters.

Some songs, such as Stranger/Sister sung by Jade Johnson as Rosa, and the barricade song of No Pasaran, are particularly striking. The musical style occasionally changes radically with rap from Joshua Ginsberg’s Sammy.

We are also treated to a fun depiction of print media’s response to events in Read All About It 1 and 2 that include the notorious headline that appeared in the Daily Mail of ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’

This fluent engaging performance, coming at a time of growing prejudice against Muslims and Jewish people in the UK, reminds us importantly of the way a community can unite effectively against the persecution of individual groups.  

Keith McKenna

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Review  of Cable Street -  Southwark Playhouse 2024