Review: Cable Street, Southwark Playhouse

A history lesson and a warning for today – Cable Street is a powerful new musical at Southwark Playhouse

“We say what now, what’s next”

Perhaps speaking to the moment, the Battle of Cable Street is proving fertile ground for creatives at the moment. Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman’s reworking of Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice 1936 is currently playing a West End season and Tim Gilvin (music and lyrics) and Alex Kanefsky’s (book) new original musical Cable Street has now opened at Southwark Playhouse in a run that has long been sold out. What could possibly be so resonant about such a story of the fight against fascism and antisemitism…?

Despite those that claim multiculturalism is a modern innovation that has ruined London, Cable Street drops in on the lives of Sammy – a Polish Jew, Mairead – an Irish Catholic, and Ron – a Lancastrian Brit, all living and working cheek by jowl in the East End in 1936. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists have declared their intention to march through the area, notably the heart of the Jewish community, and have got the protection of the Metropolitan Police but in the face of such open bigotry, much of the community coalesces to stand their ground.

Adam Lenson’s production also folds in a modern-day framing device of a New Yorker tracking down her ancestral roots on a walking tour of the area, reinforcing the timelessness of the narrative, recalling Shakespeare’s line (albeit from The Tempest) about what’s past is prologue, reminding us how much we can learn (or not) from the lessons of history. Utilising his company of 11 so cleverly, Lenson delivers a masterclass in seamless multi-roling as fascist rallies turn into a Jewish family meal into a rollicking East End bar with seemingly just the change of a few hats.

The propulsive energy is matched by the breadth of Gilvin’s highly eclectic score. If a single musical identity doesn’t necessarily emerge, it’s because it feels like the diversity of London today writ large. Swaggering rap, Irish ballads, Jewish hymns, pub singalongs and strident MT anthems, they all sound great under Tamara Saringer’s musical direction of her small band (plus some actor-musos). The book feels just a touch less assured, particularly in the structure of the second act which possibly tries to do too much.

Yoav Segal’s set does much to facilitate the fast-flowing production whilst also setting the febrile mood. And performances are committed and convincing from top to bottom – Joshua Ginsberg’s Sammy is highly personable even as he battles prejudice daily, Danny Colligan shows how the disaffected can become prey to the seductive lies of fascist rhetoric as Ron, and Sha Dessi’s rabble-rousing Mairead sounds glorious whether considering the vastness of noble causes or the intimacy of her own personal passions.

Jez Unwin stands out too, especially in the almost shocking ease with which he transforms from Blackshirt leader to Jewish patriarch, as does Sophia Ragavelas (who ought to be much better known, such is her skill). A strident new musical then, with the confidence needed to break through an ever-challenging theatre landscape here in London. Stalk the website for returns – who knows if a future life is on the cards but the chance to see Cable Street in this intimate form is one to rally for.

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