In the 1840s Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, based upon his experiences in Manchester. Ben Metters reviews a contemporary theatrical take on this political classic
As the lights dim you are greeted by a booming voice, set to the backdrop of a ‘Welcome to Manchester’ sign, reciting Kerouac- inspired poetry about the plight of the working class. Aside from the broad Manchester accent of the speaker, and the backdrop, this play need not be set in the North West.
The beauty of Ragged Collective’s interpretation is that it could be transposed to any city or region in the country. From the Chartist movement to the coalition government, from gentrification to prostitution, the play examines the condition of the working class through the eyes of the 15 performers.
The gentrification of traditionally working class areas, in this case Salford Quays, speaks volumes in this Olympic year, with swathes of the capital’s established communities replaced with towering bourgeois beacons to capitalism and elitism.
Scenes in which working class school children are pressured to change their accent or behaviour hold particular resonance at a time when Michael Gove is pushing his own class prejudices into our education system.
The plight of working women on the streets of Manchester could be anywhere in the country, portraying the onslaught of abuse and real danger these women are driven to through poverty.
Shocking and often hyperbolic, the play has an erratic quality, jumping chaotically from plight to plight, though this comes with the territory. Whilst a play depicting the banalities of working class life - working in a low paid job, scrabbling together money to pay for the weekly shopping etc - might have just as much political salience, the traumatic ‘flashpoints’ explored and presented make for a more engaging performance.
Written and rehearsed in just 8 weeks, the play is peppered by the experiences of the cast. The real life roots of the plot make it a perfect example of the distinct connection between theory and practice, which has reportedly led to a development in the political consciousness of all involved.
The project has been filmed from conception to performance by Inside Film, as part of a documentary, whilst short runs in Manchester and London have been met with rave reviews. It is highly unlikely that this is the last we will see of this fantastic depiction of the conditions of the working class in modern day England.