Pros: The performance of Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong.
Cons: Uncomfortable benches resulted in noisy fidgeting which made it difficult to hear.
This Folk musical tells the story of the Haymarket Affair, an incident at a gathering of striking workers in May 1886, at Haymarket Square, Chicago, USA. What started as a peaceful rally to support strikers demanding an eight hour day, ended up with a number of police and strikers being killed when a bomb was thrown into the police line. The police, in turn, opened fire on the demonstrators. Eight people were later convicted of conspiracy, some of whom were hanged and some pardoned. The incident had long lasting repercussions on the labour movement in many countries, and is thought to be the origin of the May Day observations for workers.
Act One introduces the main characters, outlines of their different approaches to the strike (violence, pacifism, etc.), and also gives an overview of events leading up to the fateful day. The principle narrator is Lucy Parsons, wife of one of the organisers, who went on to continue her work on workers’ rights globally. She is played by Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong who gave the best and most consistent performance on the night. Act Two covers the incident itself, subsequent trial and sentencing of the ringleaders.
The songs are catchy, with hints of Les Miserables – especially with the references to the French Revolution. The twelve strong cast double up on some roles and also play the accompanying instruments comprising guitars, cello, violin and drums. Unfortunately the acoustics within the church are not great and in the first half the loud instruments tended to drown out the singing. Even when the balance was better it was still difficult to make out all of the lyrics unless the performers were directly in front of us. The occasional missed notes were soon forgotten when the cast returned for the second half. They all seemed a bit more relaxed and it showed in the performances.
Some of the jokes seem a bit forced, but the portrayal of the courtroom circus of the anarchists’ trial, together with the actions of the judiciary and prosecuting authorities, is both unexpected and enjoyable. Other numbers that stood out for me were ‘The Order of the Gallows’ discussion the action taken by wives of the accused, and ‘Keep on talking August Spies’ when Richard Lounds blossomed in the role of Spies. I also found the execution scene effective and the ‘I was there’/‘I wasn’t there’ running theme captured different reasons why individuals might wish to be noticeably present at, or maybe absent themselves from, such events.
The costumes are done well, using random modern items of clothing to give the impression of late 19th Century style, rather than trying to be 100% accurate. The basic set consists mainly of banners and packing cases that double as drums, allowing a lot of action in a small space with no accidents or obvious mistakes.
The Actor’s Church is an interesting place to stage productions, in the centre of Covent Garden, but not being purpose-built does lead to some inconveniences. The hard benches get somewhat uncomfortable after a while, leading to a fair amount of shifting and fidgeting. As they are also creaky and a bit wobbly, a movement at one end resulted in some near-misses on the wine spillage front at the other end, as well as an increase in the background noise. All the same, the performance was both entertaining and informative, and it’s well worth a trip if it is staged again.
Writers: Alex Higgin-Houser, David Kornfield
Director: Sally Beck Wippman
Musical Director: David Kornfield
Producers: S. B. Wippman, Rosie Jane, Iris Theatre
Booking Information: This show has now completed its run.