Adam Isla O’Brien is currently performing in Strike at the Southwark Playhouse Borough till 6th May.
The Guardian Review: https://amp.theguardian.com/stage/2023/apr/18/strike-review-dublin-shop-workers-anti-apartheid-protest-southwark-playhouse-london till 6th May.
Hairspray, sun protection lotion and bikinis aren’t normally essential tools for political activists, but this effervescent story about Irish shopworkers putting their careers on the line to fight apartheid is as unusual as it’s compelling. Tracy Ryan has taken the real-life tale of the Dunnes Stores employees who, by their own admission, initially didn’t even know how to spell “apartheid” and has documented their political journey in all its sparky, irreverent detail.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out why strikes so often make good drama; the marches, the chants, the grand societal themes, the sense of the little person pitted against the big system. Yet where popular works such as Billy Elliot and Made in Dagenham gain energy from strikes tackling injustices in their communities, this is a story about women who go through incredible hardship to battle racism thousands of miles away.
The director Kirsty Patrick Ward has created a taut, quick-witted production, illuminating the group dynamics with the choreographed discipline of a musical. We first see the supermarket workers in formation, their faces lit by mobile phones as news breaks that Nelson Mandela has died; then the action rewinds to 1984 when they were dubbed “the most dangerous shop workers in the world”.
There’s no preachiness here; Ryan’s script makes it clear that the workers’ original motivation for refusing to sell South African produce to customers was to piss off their risible, seedy bosses. Not one, it seems, knows their Marx from their elbow; where the play derives momentum is from seeing how their growing commitment leads to them staying on strike for two years and nine months, attracting international attention.
Libby Watson’s witty design — which includes a monochrome South African flag on the stage floor, an electric Dunnes sign flashing different colours, and mouthwatering Eighties sweets displays — adapts deftly to the production’s complex crowd dynamics. One moment there’s laughter as the group dance to the Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again in plastic cagoules, another solemnity as they learn through South African exile Nimrod (Mensah Bediako) about the atrocities of the regime they’re defying.
While there are standout individual performances — not least from Anne O’Riordan’s defiant Liz, Jessica Regan’s charismatic Karen and Adam Isla O’Brien’s angel-voiced Tommy (the only man striking) — this is ultimately about an astonishing collective achievement. To go from popsock worries to encountering Desmond Tutu is a refreshingly unusual trajectory, and it’s carried out here with style and aplomb.