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There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion at Royal Exchange Theatre - Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Im a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
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Rage against the machine
How do you attract an audience to a new production about industrial conflict from over two hundred years ago? It is not an easy sell - even in Manchester in the middle of events to mark the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

Director James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney (listed as the dramaturg, rather than the writer) offer a kind of historical cabaret format.

At the start of the evening Daniel Millar, one of the actors, explains that the episodic scenes we are about to see are based on first-hand testimonies with extra dialogue to fill in the gaps left by the historical records.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Industrial Revolution, Luddites, Kandinsky theatre company
Photo by Manuel Harlan


There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion focuses on the machine-breaking movement which was at its height between 1811 and 1816.

In particular, it zooms in on the clandestine meetings of followers of the mythical General Ludd, in Lancashire. They vary in age and background but are brought together or 'twisted in' by shared grievances against the greedy machinery of Regency England and the new technology which threatens to shaft the human workforce.

This is an age without a welfare state and a National Health Service and when trade unions were banned.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Industrial Revolution, Luddites, Kandinsky theatre company
Amelda Brown. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


The scenes with the most dramatic tension involve the informer John Stones (Reuben Johnson) and Colonel Ralph Fletcher (Amelda Brown). At first, John Stones is a penniless, gauche comic turn thinking he will be paid for vague anecdotes about Luddite meetings.

As the action unfolds it becomes apparent that he will betray his comrades to the gallows as long as he gets his pieces of silver.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Industrial Revolution, Luddites, Kandinsky theatre company
Reuben Johnson. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


Set against Stones' duplicity is the father-daughter relationship between Thomas Kerfoot (David Crellin who gets a lot more lines than in Happy Days) and Clem (Katie West).

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Industrial Revolution, Luddites, Kandinsky theatre company
Katie West & David Crellin. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


Thomas cannot reconcile himself to the loss of agricultural life and Clem's switch from family farmworker to exploited mill girl.

Katie West's performance in Blindsided, 2014, at the Royal Exchange, won Twitter praise from Gary Lineker, amongst others.

Her empathy and versatility shine through again, in this production. Indeed, versatility is a vital quality for all the actors on stage, as they switch characters and change accents at the drop of a hat.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Industrial Revolution, Luddites, Kandinsky theatre company
Nisa Cole, Amelda Brown & David Crellin. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


The actors wear modern dress and the unconventional approach is underlined by a make-shift wardrobe in one corner of the theatre-in-the-round, which the cast go to when they are not in the spotlight.

This makes Pete Malkin's sound design even more crucial in conjuring up the dramatic magic.

The soundscape is wonderfully disorientating it includes Blondie, Mozart's Requiem, the hammer and drone of mill machinery and a haunting, ominous hum which hints at the gruesome fate of so many Luddites.

Were the Luddites vandals or folk heroes? There Is A Light That Never Goes Out allows us to make our own minds up. Above all, it is another reminder that English history has much more to it than the lives and deaths of Kings and Queens.

It is also a compelling example of how history can be dramatised without a corset or codpiece in sight.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is a Royal Exchange Theatre production in association with Kandinsky theatre company.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Industrial Revolution, Luddites
Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. By Chris Sunde; original uploader was Christopher Sunde at en.wikipedia. www.learnhistory.org.uk/cpp/luddites.htm (archive),
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Why? Smashing drama from the past which resonates with the present and future
When: 25 July - 10 August 2019
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester
Cost: Standard Tickets from 18.50; 10 tickets released on the day of the performance
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