Review: The Cradle Will Rock, Arcola Theatre

“This is a war to end war, we do it for peace”

The final show to take place in the main theatre at the Arcola’s current premises on Arcola Street in Dalston, The Cradle Will Rock also marks the 10th anniversary of the theatre founded by Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen which will be moving just down the road to the Colourworks building and opening there with a new Rebecca Lenkiewicz play about Joseph Turner in the New Year. With book, music and lyrics by American Mark Blitzstein, the musical is set in a fictional town, Steeltown, USA and concerns the wide rifts between workers and the wealthy at a time when millions were unemployed: in this case it is the union struggles of the interwar period and 1937, though there’s much resonance in the material of the nefarious influence of those in positions of power on the average citizen that echo through to today.

Events take place as a liberty committee made up of the great and good of this particular town are arrested by a confused rookie cop on the very evening that the workers in the steel plant are voting whether to unionise themselves, that committee having set out to stop the vote. But as a series of vignettes play out, we come to see how each of the town’s leaders have fallen under the corrupt influence of the steel magnate Mr Mister with only a previous few people able to withstand the pressure and fight for what they believe is right and fair.

I have to be honest with you dear readers and say that very little of this was clear to either of us last night whilst watching the show. The device of mini-stories allowed for the large cast of around 16, several of whom cover more than one role, to each have their moment and it is all done very well but it did feel like there was no access point to get into the show without prior knowledge. This was the second and final preview but I don’t think that really had an impact as the performances were most accomplished, it is just a rather obtusely told story.

Lyrically it is sharp and musically it is very much of its time, with a strong 1930s Brechtian feel, but crucially the book just didn’t help to make anything clear. I’m not normally one to recommend reading synopses before seeing shows but it would have helped the two of us immensely in this particular case. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy it, him more than me, but it was hard to build emotional connections with so many characters who appeared for such a short space of time and with little explanation.

As an ensemble piece, the quality was pleasingly strong across the board with an incredible amount of vocal talent but certain people did shine for me: Josie Benson has probably the song of the show as the emotional woman trying to stop the death of a loved one being covered up with a hugely impressive vocal, Alicia Davies’ sweet-voiced poor but kindly prostitute also had a good couple of songs, Chris Jenkins’ passionate foreman did excellently with the title song and Russell Dauber and Stuart Matthew Price had great fun as the two creative types who’ve sold out their artistic integrity for a life of comfort with a highly amusing camply-observed and vocally interesting song taking us into the interval.

Director Mehmet Ergen keeps members of the committee constantly onstage, observing the action from their chairs which looks effective in Lisa Engel and Hannah Penfold’s rather spare design. And Bob Broad’s musical direction from his solo piano is sharply efficient, with some group chanting moments being particularly well used. There’s a brilliant story in the programme about the first time this show was performed and how the company had to be incredibly inventive in order to overcome serious difficulties to perform the show by hook or by crook and ultimately, having read more and researched a bit into the show, I can honestly say I would enjoy this much more on a second viewing. So recommended, as is the carrot cake from their café, but arm yourself with a little advance knowledge, it will pay dividends.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £1.50
Booking until 18th December

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