Review: Paved with Gold and Ashes, Old Red Lion

Heading up to Edinburgh, Threedumb Theatre’s Paved with Gold and Ashes is an achingly good ensemble piece with a horrible timelessness

“Suddenly we’re in this land of opportunity and we can’t do anything but work”

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I like to think of myself as fairly well informed about history but despite being one of the deadliest workplace disasters in US history, one wonders if the fact that the vast majority of its 146 victims were women and girls means it hasn’t broken through to the wider cultural conversation, at least the ones I’m aware of…

So Julia Thurston’s Paved with Gold and Ashes acts as a piece of living history as much a powerfully drawn play. In New York City at that time, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was *the* place to get a job, especially for recently arrived immigrants but reality was somewhat more brutal. Girls as young as 14 were employed for days that could last up to 13 hours to do painstaking work for managers who trusted them so little that their handbags were searched every day and doors were locked to prevent theft of even the smallest of scraps of fabric.

Thurston centres her play on 5 young women – 4 workers and a supervisor – and elegantly sketches the variety of immigrant experiences that brought them here. The similarities and the differences in their stories, the loved ones left at home or the family still clinging close in crowded apartments, the regret at what they had to leave behind versus the excitement of the opportunities anticipated, the hopes and dreams of what their hard work will bring.

Directed by the company, there’s a gorgeous ensemble feel to the whole production as testimony slips easily from actor to actor, acapella music threaded throughout to perfectly set the atmosphere. And when tragedy strikes, the mood darkens in agonising fashion. Respectfully so, there’s no lurid sensationalism here, just achingly sad levels of detail that leaves you rapt – I scarcely breathed for the final third.

Moreover though, Thurston reminds us just how doomed we are to repeat the mistakes of our history. There’s echoes of the horrors of Grenfell, the haunting image of Sarah Huckabee Sanders beaming as she repeals child labour laws in Arkansas, countless stories of workers too afraid to go against their bosses even as things go to shit around them… A striking piece of theatre, a significant piece of history.

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Stephanie Van Driesen
Paved with Gold and Ashes is booking at Old Red Lion until 10th August, then plays Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 14th-26th August at Greenside Infirmary Street

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