Monday 23rd August 1976. The UK is in the grip of a heatwave. Whilst the management bully at the Grunwick Film Processing Plant sings and cavorts to Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, Jayaben Desai and her colleagues are forced to work in the factory basement where there are no windows or air conditioning. Tired of the factory’s exploitative practices, Desai stages a walkout. As she says to the manager, “What you are running here is not a factory, it’s a zoo. But in a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager!”
This production may be small in scale but like its petite, yet gutsy, heroine it packs an almighty punch
Townsend Theatre Production's powerful new play charts the Grunwick strikes, a little known but important chapter in the UK’s political history. Medhavi Patel plays the diminutive (she was only 4ft 10in) but fearless Desai. Originally from Northwest India, Desai lived in Tanzania with her husband until 1967 when the ‘Africanisation’ policies of the region forced them to flee to London. Despite being educated and enjoying a middle-class lifestyle in Tanzania, Desai and her husband could only get poorly paid and exploitative work in London. After initially working as a sewing machinist in a sweatshop, Desai went to work at Grunwick where she and her fellow workers, most of whom were also immigrant women, were forced to work overtime without any notice, paid a pittance and subjected to racism on a daily basis, until that baking hot day when Desai decided to take a stand.
Patel along with Neil Gore, who plays multiple characters and provides musical interludes on the guitar (he also wrote the script), lead us through the two turbulent years that followed that fateful day. We observe the many ups and downs of the dispute – the pickets, the inspiring talks to trade unions and women’s liberation activists, the marches with hundreds of workers from all over the country, the hunger strikes and the confrontations with the police. Original images and videos of the strikers are projected onto the walls of the set. Audience members are invited to join the picket on stage where, holding placards aloft, they chant, “The workers, united, will never be defeated!” At regular intervals we are all encouraged to sing along to various protest songs, in particular the rousing “Hold the Line.” Despite Gore’s policeman character joking that he had been “warned about immersive theatre”, these immersive techniques are extraordinarily effective. Momentarily you forget your surroundings and the fact that there are actually only two actors on stage, and you’re instead transported to the exhilarating atmosphere of a march.
Patel is a commanding presence on stage. She captures Desai’s courage and determination to “fight on” whatever the Grunwick management, backed by the rightwing pressure group National Association for Freedom (NAFF), throws at her. Her delivery of the “We are the lions, Mr. Manager” speech sent chills down my back. Gore also proves himself to be an extremely versatile actor – he is particularly good when playing villainous characters like the slimy Mr. Manager, and the menacing NAFF representative. Despite learning that the strike ultimately failed, you can’t help but leave the theatre feeling inspired by Desai’s vow to “fight on, fight on with patience, fight on with courage, fight on, fight on.” This production may be small in scale but like its petite, yet gutsy, heroine it packs an almighty punch.