Jayaben Desai’s bold fight for workers’ rights which began in north west London is humorously brought to life on stage
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Grunwick industrial strike that took place at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories. Commemorations marking its 40th anniversary, Grunwick 40, were staged at Willesden Green Library in London, and the events have now been portrayed in a new play called We Are The Lions Mr Manager.
The Grunwick Strike was a seminal moment in the workers’ rights movements, when a worker was dismissed for working too slowly, creating a wave of popular disquiet, and resulting in many other workers quitting in support of their colleague. The Grunwick factory had become notorious for its low pay and harsh conditions, where management mainly hired workers of south-east Asian and African-Caribbean origin. Workers at the time complained about dehumanising and humiliating practices at the factory such as having to “raise your hand to go to the toilet”, long hours with mandatory overtime, low pay and a climate of racism and harassment from the management, who it was said actively dissuaded white people from working there because of the low pay.
Although the height of the strike created national headlines and was featured every night on the news bulletin, it has all but been forgotten in recent times. It once captivated the nation’s attention because the leader of strike action, Jayaben Desai, was a woman of small stature, distinctly marked in the public imagination with her sari and handbag. Desai was one of those dismissed from the factory after refusing to do overtime and being caught speaking about the unjust conditions at the factory with other workers.
In We Are The Lions, Desai is played by the fiery Medhavi Patel,while the factory manager, among other roles, is played by Neil Gore who is also the playwright. The small two-actor production, directed by Louise Townsend, attempts to ambitiously tell this story that was a major precursor to the weakening of the trade unions under Thatcher and decades after her government. With the multi-talented Gore and Patel’s spirited portrayal of Desai, both actors manage to tell the complex tale with fluidity, never losing the audience’s attention for even a moment.
The fictionalised ordeal of Desai and her narration is at the heart of this play. This is particularly important because, as the author Graham Taylor explained at the press night, when he was writing a chapter in his book, Grunwick – The Workers’ Story, the publisher refused to include Desai’s formative role and agency within the strike, remarking that she would likely not appeal to “rank and file” trade unionists. Regrettably, to this day there is little written about Desai, except in Amrita Wilson’s book A Voice – Asian Women in Britain. This neglected perspective informed Gore’s decision to write the play.
Putting Desai centre stage works perfectly, not only because it is historically accurate and the right thing to do, but because of her charisma and oratorical power. The title of the play is from one of her many witty retorts to the factory manager who referred to the unrest by the workers as a “zoo”, to which she replied: “…in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager!”
Actress Medhavi Patel told me how fortunate she felt in being able to play a character such as Desai because they rarely come up for British Asian actors, especially women. By utilising her own Guajarati contacts, Patel managed to speak to Desai’s family who told her that Jayaben had been a strong believer in non-violence and was influenced deeply by Gandhi. She was also an avid Hindu and clearly felt age presented no overwhelming barrier to her ambitions, for instance, learning how to drive at 63. (Desai passed away in 2010 at the age of 77.)
Gore manages to tell the story with his own brand of comedy. His characters (including several minor roles he assumes himself) are jovial to varying degrees. Yet the comedy does not take away from the play, as Patel’s fierce and indignant speeches root us very much within the plight of the Grunwick “strikers in saris”. Patel manages to masterfully navigate being indignant at the treatment of workers and the ineptitude of unions in one scene, to impersonating factory owner George Ward in another scene, which got many hearty laughs from the audience.
We Are The Lions Mr Manager was entertaining without trivialising historical significance. This is a piece of interactive theatre, with folk music from the period interwoven into the scenes, bringing life to a long forgotten part of British history.
It is a small production that packs a punch and probes many questions regarding the rights of workers in our times, and the power of unions to resist and mobilise. Fundamentally, it throws open the debate about the state of trade unions, whose decline is rooted in the Grunwick strike that they so badly failed in. It also alludes to the relevance of unions in today’s society where employment conditions are arguably more precarious than they have ever been.
The spring tour of We Are The Lions Mr Manager by Townsend Productions begins on 5 February 2018 at Harrogate Theatre and continues until May 2018. Limited number of tickets remain. See available dates here and follow the page to purchase your tickets.
Photo: Rukiya Gadid [left] Townsend Productions [right]
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