“Equality isn’t a moment!” Shake The City tells the forgotten story of the Leeds clothworkers strike of 1970, as four women band together in their own makeshift Women’s Liberation Movement in Harehills. Equal pay is a concept that people struggle with today, so you can imagine the hostility with which these perfectly reasonable demands were met over fifty years ago; there are also the issues of class and race to consider.
Heather, Lori & Margaret are the founding members of their fledgling WLM group, though when Heather leaves to study at Oxford University, she brings along her childhood friend Wendy to take her place – she’s interested in the idea of the group, but has a lot to learn as far as Lori’s concerned. There are some minor issues to solve, such as a lack of toilet paper and slightly temperamental machines, but what’s most important to the group is bringing their pay in line with that of their male colleagues – they do the same work and make up the majority of the workforce, after all. Margaret has been elevated to the position of foreman in the factory, and is keen to use any newfound influence carefully; Lori, however, recognises that the only way the women will get the board’s attention is to take drastic action. With Wendy caught in the middle, and Heather still trying to find her voice in the unfamiliar surroundings of Oxford, is it a risk too far?
It’s depressing how much a story like this still resonates with working women in the UK. On International Women’s Day 2022, I discovered one of my new favourite Twitter accounts: Gender Pay Gap Bot (@PayGapApp). While institutions & companies were busy posting platitudes, this account diligently pointed out every piece of hypocrisy on show; it definitely caused a few tweets to be deleted, and one can only hope it made some of these organisations think twice about joining in with performative allyship (rather than making real change) in the future. @PayGapApp continues to share pay gap data every day, plus you are free to search through the databases for yourself.
Obviously this is quite a serious subject to cram into a 70-minute show, so the infusion of pop & northern soul hits is very welcome – especially when aspiring singer Wendy takes on the vocals herself. If the show is given a chance to develop and have a future life, what I would love to see is a band on board to perform the songs live. This obviously isn’t a criticism of the current production – it might not even be Millie Gaston (writer/assistant director/co-producer) and Amie Burns Walker’s (director) vision for the show – just an observation, based on my personal preferences.
Gaston’s script unites four women who have the common goal of equality, though they’re each bringing something different to the table: Lori is bearing the burden of providing for two families (one in Yorkshire, the other in the Caribbean), Margaret has made the leap to middle class & risks alienating her friends, Heather is trying to balance her university life with her working class roots, and Wendy seems to be content with the traditional path set out for women (though she dreams of fame & fortune). It’s a lot to consider in a short play, but all the strands tie in so well with each other that it is able to come to a satisfying conclusion. The use of the word ‘privilege’ in relation to race is probably a bit anachronistic, however it is vital to include these concerns as they remain pertinent today. Repeat after me: white feminism is not feminism.
Caitlin Mawhinney’s set design is exquisite, with jackets & shirts hung on coathangers around the stage, and the floor of the stage itself decorated with the outlines of clothing templates. It’s simple, but effective – as well as functional. Courtney George does stand out as Lori, with a smart combination of humour, frustration & determination injected into her character, though there are strong performances from Rachael Halliwell as Margaret, Emma Leah Golding as Heather, and Elizabeth Robin as Wendy.
My verdict? An inspiring & uplifting play about a topic that is all too relatable fifty years on – Courtney George impresses as Lori.
Shake The City ran at Greenwich Theatre until 28 April 2022.