The Great Estate at The Boundary Pub – Photo © Julian Swainson 2023
The Common Lot are a theatre company deeply rooted in the Norwich community and determined to capture the spirit of this community. Their show for the summer commemorates the first 100 years of the Mile Cross estate, built to a high standard by Norwich City Council in the 1920s. The estate was one of the first and best examples of municipal socialism in action, providing high quality well built homes with modern conveniences that were affordable for everybody. Housing before this time in Norwich consisted of Victorian terraced housing and many tightly packed ‘yards’ in the city centre where up to fifty families would huddle into ramshackle rooms around a central yard with maybe one privy if they were lucky.
This open air show is presented in a format familiar to fans of the Common Lot with lively and engaging music from Charlie Caine and an ensemble of singers and musicians. There is a lot of humour and many interesting characters created by a capable and well rehearsed cast. The show takes us from the first moments of council housing development right through to today, with many small human stories illuminating the effects of the policymaker’s decisions. It is also an authoritative history of public housing in Norwich paying homage to some of the people who made it happen.
As with so many aspects of life in Britain the key message is that Labour builds, Tories destroy. Hundreds of families in Norwich thrived precisely because of the good housing provided by the Labour Council, a provision destroyed by successive Tory Government cuts and the imposition by Thatcher of the ‘right to buy’. This giveaway of public assets was designed to break up the strong Labour vote in areas like Mile Cross. Ironically it is the children and grandchildren of those who bought their council houses that are paying the price, forced back into a rapacious and cynical private renting market with little hope ever of buying a home themselves on a working salary.
Tonight’s show was held in the rambunctious setting of the back garden of the Boundary Pub where traffic noise, a little rain and a few gobby drunks combined to challenge the cast, who remained completely unperturbed with their voices rising above the ambient hubbub. Directed by Siobhan O’Connor and Simon Floyd the show is tautly timed with a good pace which holds the attention of the audience throughout the 70 minutes or so that it lasts. A live open air show always has the potential for the unexpected, but this company have built a formula that works well and is great fun. There are moments of clowning and humour to balance the serious and sometimes grim detail of the historic account. There are some nice touches, like the two actors who take the role of the enduring Mile Cross house. Proud of their brickwork, their front and back gardens are a laugh out loud moment not to miss. I also enjoyed the boxing knockabout between Margaret Thatcher and Patricia Hollis. Maggie Wheeler plays Patricia Hollis who we both knew well, and we are pretty sure she would have loved that depiction.
I hope this show helps younger audience members to understand more of the context of their housing woes today. We need the same solutions again. Council house building at scale creates thousands of good quality sustainable homes for working people, and acts as a market moderator forcing rent levels down in the private sector as demand drops. Labour under Blair failed this challenge, being devoted to market economics, and if they are to form an effective government next year Labour must clearly guarantee such a programme, not give in to the siren voices of banks and fatcat developers. So when they come knocking for your votes, ask the candidates if they went to see The Great Estate and what they plan to do for housing should they get elected. The Common Lot have brought us a great show that packs a strong message but is great fun and fast paced. It might also encourage you to go and have a wander around the Mile Cross estate and admire the design and construction of homes that have built happy families for a hundred years now.
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 30 June 2023
Update – I went to see the show at Cow Tower to see how it thrived in a different location. The cast played to the biggest audience in this location that I have ever seen and once again was warmly received, including by many who just happened to be walking along the riverside path but stayed for the whole show.