REVIEW: Strife at Minerva Theatre, Chichester

William Gaunt as company head John Anthony, pictured far right. Picture: Johan Persson SUS-160819-102526001 SUS-160819-102526001
William Gaunt as company head John Anthony, pictured far right. Picture: Johan Persson SUS-160819-102526001 SUS-160819-102526001

It was first staged more than a century ago. Like the tin plate works on the Welsh borders where it’s set, it has become something of an industrial museum piece - rarely revisited despite being penned by John Galsworthy of The Forsyte Saga fame.

Now it’s back with its brutal judgement on industrial Britain of 1909 untarnished. Capital versus Labour. Poverty. Social injustice. Class divisions and female subjugation. Hefty issues in a world of heavy metals.

Still relevant? An opening sequence of audio news clips argues that the themes resonate just as clearly in 2016 where the fate of the steel works at Port Talbot remains hotly contested.

In the audience on the first night sits former Labour leader Neil Kinnock with his wife Lady Kinnock and he’s in no doubt that this is a story for today.

William Gaunt leads the cast as John Anthony, chairman of the company which owns the works - where the men strike and the wives and children freeze in the Welsh winter.

Anthony isn’t a man to concede. He’s faced down the workers four times in his 32 years at the top and despite the ravages of age and ill health he does not hesitate.

But workers’ revolutionary David Roberts (Ian Hughes) is the firebrand who is not for quitting either. This is a fight he’s been spoiling for - ever since he was paid £700 for a process which made the shareholders more than hundred times that amount.

Among the ranks of the striking workers, the men vacillate. Around the board room table, Anthony’s fellow directors count the mounting losses and weigh them against the point of principle.

In the tiny terraced homes, where the role of the wife and daughter is to stand by their man, they starve and shiver beside a coal-less fire and they die.

It’s not just tin plate that’s in short supply in this furnace of emotions. Concession hovers tantalisingly on both sides - within the grasp of all except for the main protagonists.

The set, with its metallic floor and dominating steel girder, is as uncompromisingly severe as the plot. But for a small theatre, this is lavishly populated with a cast who soften the blunt edges of industrial turmoil with a raw and empathetic humanity.

There is greyness, but Gaunt gives a masterfully understated performance - radiating power despite wheelchair and walking stick. Laying a tender hand on Roberts’ shoulder in the closing scene there’s a fleeting sense of his respect for the principle of his opponent contrasting with contempt for allies who would give way.

Galsworthy lived his last seven years a handful of miles from Chichester. His ashes were scattered across the adjoining South Downs. No hint of heavy industry here. No suggestion of social conscience in his privileged upbringing.

For all that he was an ardent reformer. As Lord Kinnock left the theatre he gave his verdict. Simply terrific. Galsworthy might have taken that as the finest accolade of them all.