The Common Lot in Chapelfield Gardens – all photos © Julian Swainson 2022
Norwich is an enlightened oasis of tolerance, intelligence and socialism which happens to be located in the midst of one of the more conservative and regressive rural counties in the UK. Should you forget this for one minute then there will be a noisy reminder in our parks and greens spaces for many days every summer when we can enjoy free theatre and entertainment from a number of well established local companies. Some companies, such as the excellent Crude Apache, have been going for as long as I can remember and I have been in or near Norwich for over four decades now. This show is by The Common Lot, who have been entertaining us since 2013 with a refreshingly collective approach to production.
Songs of Hope and Protest is a collaboration between a UEA research project, Our Subversive Voice: the history and politics of the English protest song (OSV), and The Common Lot, with the support of the National Centre for Writing. The show highlights 10 protest songs interwoven with a historical-satirical narrative. Five of these songs have been chosen by the creative team from OSV research, one is from The Common Lot repertoire and four are original.
Director Simon Floyd is an irrepressible force of nature with apparently boundless energy who knows how to blend pathos with humour to create a great show suitable for outdoor spaces where there are many unpredictable factors. The distractions, and the reactions of the cast are often part of the fun, with unscheduled interruptions from voices that may have discovered their strength but lack as yet any coherent message to share with us. Add in some background traffic noise, an obligatory police siren during any slightly quieter bits and you have the perfect recipe for an outdoor event that is always fun and usually memorable. On a really good day you might even spot the police helicopter buzzing overhead so Priti Patel can take photos of us all to use in future prosecutions of us daring to protest with a bit of racket.
The current climate in this country makes this more relevant than ever. We have a government that does nothing about serious issues like climate change, housing shortage and rocketing poverty levels, but passes endless legislation removing our right to protest, to strike, to fight back against their intolerance, dishonesty and sheer incompetence.
Simon Floyd as well as directing this show takes a linking role as a Sun-reading working class Tory, bought his council house, voted for Brexit and hates lefties but does not seem to have fulfilled many aspirations as he is still pushing a broom around as a uniformed cleaner. This gives scope for plenty of witty repartee and reminds us that not everyone has yet figured out how to vote for what might be good for them. His character also gives the show a useful pantomime baddie!
As the name suggests, this performance is all about the songs and from thousands written The Common Lot have picked a selection of rousing and enjoyable tunes, some long familiar but some newly written but fitting well into the long tradition of singing to protest. The messages are many: celebrating the rights of women, LGBTQ people, minorities and workers, but for every battle this is a celebration of a community coming together to fight the greed and intolerance of the rich, of those who give themselves the right to govern us.
There are historic figures with local connections, like Thomas Paine and Harriet Martineau and updated protest classics like Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay and Captain Ska’s Liar Liar. Now I wonder who that could be about today? Charlie Caine has composed the new songs and directs the show’s music as well as giving some passionate performances himself. There are many great moments from a big cast who all get involved with the Common Lot technique of using multiple voices to give a narrative. One or two stand out for me, particularly Dan Fridd as the wise but doomed WW1 soldier speaking and singing ‘The Ol’ Barbed Wire’ and a captivating impression of Jeff Bezos’ space rocket from Eve Pandolfi, but it seems invidious to pick out individuals from a show that is all about collaboration and common endeavour. All the cast give it their best, with a resulting show full of energy, passion and hope for a better future.
I caught the show in two very different locations. In Chapelfield Gardens on a beautiful sunny afternoon a big crowd clapped and sang along with the show, with many more passers-by stopping to get the message. The day before I saw the evening show In Anglia Square, a space that looks a bit neglected and run down but perfect for this kind of show. The parasol roof in the centre of the square is missing a few panes but helps the open air acoustics punch through. The Square is again under threat of redevelopment into industrial scale buy-to-let hutches in dull square blocks with about 27 unaffordable coffee chain shops. Rather than this expensive destroy and rebuild process I think The Common Lot show us what could be done now with this bit of 1970 harshness – the perfect place for evening performances, pop-up bars and cafés, a bit of life amongst the charity shops and low cost outlets.
The Common Lot are based in the heart of the Mile Cross community which inexplicably still has a Tory MP, Chloe Smith. Rumour has it that she did not grace even one of these performances with her attendance, which is a shame as she might learn a bit about community and collaboration, and be less inclined to show her devotion to the Liar Liar PM.
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, June 2022