Cable Street: A new musical – Review by David Rosenberg

By Searchlight Team

Cable Street : A new musical returns for it’s second run @Southwark Playhouse 6 Sept-10 Oct 2024 here

The Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End on 4 October 1936 was undoubtedly the most iconic confrontation with fascism in 1930s Britain, although people in Stockton, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and Bermondsey will point to other serious clashes in that decade that should be commemorated and celebrated.

Cable Street, though, has a special claim, and not only because of the scale of the event with upward of 100,000 people on the streets, bloody clashes and scores of arrests. In October 1936, half of the entire national membership of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) was concentrated in four east London branches that formed a horseshoe around the enclave of Aldgate/Whitechapel, where 60,000 Jews – a third of all London’s Jews – eked out a living in one square mile.

They were already facing growing anti-Semitic harassment and violence from Mosley’s Blackshirts. Then the government gave the go-ahead for a potential invasion of their streets by thousands of uniformed jackbooted fascists. A petition to the Home Secretary with nearly 100,000 signatures calling for Mosley’s march to be banned was ignored: thousands of police were mobilised to facilitate the fascists’ free speech and free movement.

By summer 1934, Mosley could boast 500 BUF branches around the UK and a cross-class membership of 40,000. His increasingly obsessive anti Semitism had struck a chord among rich and poor. But by 1936 the BUF had narrowed its sights strategically to a few key inner cities, where they sought to build a working-class power base.

In clipped upper-class tones, Mosley proclaimed in 1935: “We are now the patriotic party of the working class.” (Fun fact: on the day that Paul Nuttall, a former history lecturer at Liverpool Hope University, became UKIP’s leader in 2016, he told a press conference: “We are now the patriotic party of the working people.”)

Scepticism averted

The Battle of Cable Street has been marked in several ways, most permanently by the stunning mural that covers the side of the former St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street. Since 1986 – the 50th anniversary – the event has been celebrated with marches, rallies and local festivals, initially every 10 years, then from 2011 every five years.

I was very sceptical when I heard that a musical about Cable Street was being produced. I feared that the raw anger, the stark brutality and terror would be sanitised and softened into something comforting and light on the ear – and that the courage of those organising a political struggle of resistance would be collapsed into a “feelgood” reminder of how community spirit triumphs over evil.

I could not have been more mistaken. This was dynamic and gritty theatre. Actors played countless roles that changed instantly with slick changes of scene. Tim Gilvin’s well-crafted songs with powerful lyrics were conveyed with real conviction in diverse styles, old and modern. In the intimate space of Southwark Playhouse the action takes place at floor level, almost within touching distance of the audience, recreating an atmosphere of crisis felt so viscerally in the mid-1930s.

The precariousness of people’s economic lives was ever present. Alex Kanefsky’s script deftly demonstrated how easily the desperation felt by those suffering hardship could open their ears to the messages of populist right-wing demagogues who made promises they knew they could not fulfil. Those drawn into this new movement, as hopeful footsoldiers of a New Britain, sank deeper into a politics of hate.

At the heart of the drama is the dynamic between the East End’s two biggest minority groups that the BUF tried to manipulate. Mosley sought to win impoverished Irish Catholics against equally poor Jews, while a growing anti-fascist movement, in which the Communist Party played a leading role, worked to unite the two communities against the fascists. On 4 October 1936, many Irish people helped Jews to build barricades to repel the fascists.

The musical shows the somewhat uneasy coexistence of the two communities. The reality in the 1930s East End was that it was demarcated into distinct areas. Two thirds of Cable Street itself, to the west, was almost entirely Jewish, while to the east it was almost entirely Irish. The two rarely mixed. It was true, though, that some Irish people worked for small Jewish businesses.

In the play, Mairead, a young Irish woman attracted to communist ideas, works in a Jewish bakery. She becomes romantically involved with an unemployed Jewish boxer, Sammy Scheinberg. Mairaid’s more right-wing and prejudiced mother does not welcome her daughter’s politics. And Sammy’s growing political awareness brings him into conflict with his father’s more cautious approach, handed down from aloof middle-class Jewish community leaders far from the East End.

Two clever devices deftly filled in some of the period’s political detail. A group of street-corner newspaper sellers appear several times, articulating different stances on the latest political developments by opinion formers.

The other device – a present-day tour guide who describes the events of yesteryear – made me feel personally honoured. Since 2007, I have led tours of London’s radical history. One walk, Anti-Fascist Footprints, tells the story of the East End’s explosive encounter with 1930s fascism. On the tours I insist that the story did not end with Cable Street. On 4 October 1936, the anti-fascist victory across the ethnic/religious divide was then cemented through common struggles in housing in the following years. This was what achieved concrete gains for those working class communities, not the false promises of the fascists. This musical includes that crucial part of the story.

The show sold out its four-week run even before the first preview. No doubt many in the audience had relatives who had taken part in the 1930s struggles that demonstrated unity, solidarity and courageous defiance.

But the theme cannot help but strike a chord today in the dismal vacuum of mainstream politics: as people struggle to stay afloat economically in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, this once again provides ample opportunities for right wing populist movements.

David Rosenberg is the author of Battle for the East End and Rebel Footprints, and was convenor of the Cable Street 80 commemorations in 2016. For details of his walks, see www.eastendwalks.com

This article was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight

One response on “Cable Street: A new musical – Review by David Rosenberg

  1. Deborah Goodman

    A fascinating read.
    Thank you.
    And Cable Street is returning to the Southwark Playhouse Elephant this Autumn 2024 for a new run of 42 shows only!

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