It’s 1984 and the effects of the six-month-old
Miner’s Strike is really starting to bite. Mining communities feel they are
being “starved” back to work by an oppressive government and living in a
“Police State” of abuse by the system.
Those lucky enough to catch the 2014 Matthew Warchus movie Pride may be hoping for a similar tale of struggle-over-adversity, especially with the promise of a female slant on this – but it is sadly not of the same calibre.
Sue (Fiona Whitelaw, who is also the writer of this piece), belts out rhetoric as she hammers together protest placards, but has a crisis of conscious when timid neighbour Rachel (Caroline Frewin) offers her bags of food. Rachel’s husband is still working (albeit “just for the Club”), so Sue resists accepting such a tainted gift. Sue’s daughter Bethany (Laura M Tipper) is plucky and has no problems eating “scab” Chicken Stew, probably because she’s having an ill-fated affair with a policeman from the picket lines. The touchstone to all this is Aunt Brenda, played valiantly by a woefully-underwritten Jenny Stokes, who tries to find reason in the starkly binary landscape of being ‘with us or against us’.
Those lucky enough to catch the 2014 Matthew Warchus movie Pride may be hoping for a similar tale of struggle-over-adversity, especially with the promise of a female slant on this – but it is sadly not of the same calibre. The characters, particularly in Act I, are regrettably two-dimensional, lacking the details that invoke empathy. It’s ironic, for instance, that they refuse food from a ‘scab’ neighbour, but are careful to keep their community-organised food parcels under £4 in value in order to still keep the handouts from a government they despise.
Whereas Pride painted sympathetic characters and allowed you to really understand the hardships the miner’s families had to face, Tinned Goods focuses far too often on shouting polemics, leaving little room left in the script to explain why these women were prepared to turn against their neighbours and let their children go hungry.
The staging is austere, with changes of basic blocks and tables covered either with snatches of lyrics from 80’s songs or chants from the picket lines sung by the cast. Lighting cues are limited – apart from some pools of light and one red wash, there’s little beyond general cover to marvel at. Costume design is practically non-existent. Despite the passage of time being indicated on a chalk board hanging from a bin, day-to-day clothing for everyone on stage remains the same. They must have hummed a bit by the time they got to that march in London.
The script – which I assume is partly verbatim – jars at times. At the top of the play, invective descriptions of “handouts from strangers down South” is juxtaposed with “all the support from the South is unbelievable” at the end of the piece from the lips of the same actress with little joining of the dots in between. Aunt Brenda claims she was always taught to respect the police, but at her first encounter she is far from respectful, which makes you wonder what changed her (there is a throwaway mention that she was at Greenham Common, but that raises even more questions about her character and whether she’s the mild miner’s wife done-wrong, or a more prolific activist). Perhaps this is the problem – far too much is left unsaid or happens off-stage. Bethany’s affair with the copper is difficult to connect with when we never get to meet him, let alone given a chance to understand why Bethany would risk so much for this unseen man.
Ending at Ruskin College, Tinned Goods sums itself up in a politicised speech delivered from a lectern. And this scene – although confidently delivered by Rachel as she finally finds her voice – feels like it’s the only point the play is making. Tinned Goods has the potential to be so much more – we want Beef Stew, but on opening it’s little more than Alphabetti Spaghetti.