Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – until 10 August 2019
Reviewed by Julie Noller
Neither I, or the audience members sitting close to me at the matinee performance of There is a Light That Never Goes Out, truly knew very much about Luddites as a movement – never mind the rebellion this plays tag line refers to. In my mind they were a group of people hell bent on wanton destruction. Would history actually prove me wrong?
What becomes apparent is that there’s no excuses, no this is why, no this actually happened. But what it does very clearly is what all theatre does well and that’s tell a story. Where it goes in between or at the end is yours to decide upon. The feeling you have in the set up of the Royal Exchange theatre is one of belonging to a crowd perhaps in the throes of a riot, perhaps as an innocent bystander.
Created by James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney who bring together some painstaking research into those few years that saw the industrial revolution, wars in Europe and the American colonies not to mention a mad King and a Prince Regent that’s all a side line to the tales of an experienced weaver scared at the coming advancement of the power loom. Much as we protest today at self service checkouts and computers replacing workers this is a fear and struggle that will always be there in some manifestation forcing insecurities to the forefront. What does a man do when faced with poverty, unable to feed himself and his family? Irrational acts are born out frustration and fear, anger. Survival of the fittest often does not mean accepting technology and improvements. New money was bred with the mills of industry booming, old money had managed the peasants, keeping them in their places with pompous propriety. New money enjoyed the new privileges and change whilst calling for new changes, it was a tornado of public unrest that would see them struggle to hold sway in the power struggle.
We must applaud the cast of six multi talented actors who take on multiple roles, quick costume changes; ok so it might only have been a coat and hat but it was enough to not confuse us. Amelda Brown, Nisa Cole, David Crellin, Reuben Johnson, Daniel Millar and Katie West bring to the stage a poignant tale of our very own history, the audience will have contained a distant relative of one of the characters or at least someone who was caught up with the Luddites.
What is incredible is that the riot act was read all those years ago after a public meeting within the very same building in which we were sat; yes The Royal Exchange. This part of our history of which we know so little occurred under the very same roof we now looked upon. It is as we are told from the very first spoken words a tale based upon some facts extremely well researched and equally a small dose of speculation to fill in the blanks. Luddites led by the so called General Ludd, King Ludd or Captain Ludd, why so many names? Perhaps because he didn’t exist as we believed. But rather a faceless name to bring the impoverished workers together, what better than to gather many together in mass protests.
Like a religion, this was a form of early trades union, secretive in recruiting members. The set is somewhat simplistic a deep red (like the blood that runs deep) platform that rises like the Pennine hills that separate many of the old mill towns. Its transformation from peaceful existence of cottage industry, birds chirping, breeze rustling to the booming ear splitting heavy machinery of the mills is impressive. How we see Clem a young daughter defy her father and begin back breaking work in the local mill in order to put food on the table. The desperation to feed families keeps the workers going, life is no longer simplistic but monotonous. Her father in turn worries about his livelihood, fearing the changes that are coming he joins the Luddites and life moves on as those fears are mirrored in each class, mill owners fear for their new found wealth, old ruling classes fear change will lead to them losing position.
The sounds throughout are a bold move, instead of using sight as a main sense we are treated with many sounds to follow and yet I saw everything glass smashing as in those bubbles, heavy loom machinery deafening to all, birds chirping quietly. It isn’t so much horrible histories as complicated histories. Don’t expect to understand this era, prepare to walk away confused. There is no definitive answer as to just who the Luddites were. Their hold was only a few short years, but 20 years before workers rights led to some men being given the right to vote, nearly a century before women would see that privilege. It didn’t really stretch the full length of the country and you could be forgiven for not knowing any reasons why they happened but it’s just a small stepping stone in our past that brings about change. They were executed, or sent to the colonies but they were beaten out of the country that ultimately feared revolution above change. That’s the lesson we learn from the rather flat ending, although we were told it’s an ending we all know. Not so much from the history books but by witnessing life around us.
Change isn’t always welcomed but rather thrust upon us by those around us. There is a Light That Never Goes Out, could refer to the mill lights, the workers cottages or it could refer to constant change never ending – no one can stop progress.