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‘Nice Girls’: the Vic Gives a Voice to Women of the Working Class

  • Graham Woodruff

Abstract

Since its opening in 1961, the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent has arguably been England's most adventurous and inventive repertory theatre, distinguished by the number and range of new plays it has produced – and particularly by the series of local documentaries which has set out to explore and reflect the life of the local community. The first issue of Theatre Quarterly (1971) covered the early years of the old Victoria Theatre, and included an article by the director, Peter Cheeseman, on the company policy and production style of what was then Britain's only permanent theatre in the round. In addition, a ‘Production Casebook’ followed the creative processes and the techniques involved in rehearsals of one of the early Vic documentaries, The Staffordshire Rebels. Here, Graham Woodruff looks at developments in the later Vic documentaries and, in the light of current discourses on popular theatre, history, and class politics, examines the implications of a regional theatre giving voice to ‘women of the working class’ in the latest Vic documentary, Nice Girls. Graham Woodruff, who has been Head of Drama at the University of Birmingham and for sixteen years worked for Telford Community Arts, wrote in NTQ28 (1989) on the politics of community plays, and is currently undertaking research on the ways in which the contemporary theatre gives expression to workingclass voices and interests.

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1. Nice Girls (1993), unpublished manuscript, New Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.

2. John, McGrath, A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre, Audience, Class, and Form (London: Methuen, 1981), and The Bone Won't Break: on Theatre and Hope in Hard Times (London: Methuen, 1990).

3. Dario, Fo, ‘Some Aspects of Popular Theatre’, New Theatre Quarterly, I, No. 2 (1985), p. 131–7.

4. Richard Schechner, in his director's notes for the programme of Faust Gastronome, performed by the East Coast Artists at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on Tuesday 1 02 1994.

5. Theatre Policy Statement, from the Victoria Theatre Business Plan, 1992–1995, contained in the New Vic File on Documentary Plays.

7. Peter, Cheeseman, Theatre Policy Document, 1988.

9. From an interview with Peter Cheeseman by Gillette, Elvgren, reprinted in Elvgren, ‘Documentary Theatre at Stoke-on-Trent’, Educational Theatre Journal, 03 1974, p. 86–98.

10. Peter, Cheeseman, in interview with Roy Nevitt, in Documentary Arts Report, No. 2 (1986), p. 28.

11. Interview by the author with Peter Cheeseman, 15 November 1993.

12. Ibid.

13. For a full discussion see my article, ‘Community, Class, and Control’, New Theatre Quarterly, V, No. 28 (1986), p. 371–3.

14. My interview with Cheeseman, op. cit.

15. Peter, Cheeseman, Introduction to the programme for Fight for Shelton Bar, first performed at the old Victoria Theatre on Tuesday, 22 01 1974.

16. Ewan, MacCoIlJourneyman: an Autobiography (London: Sidgewick and Jackson, 1990).

17. Peter, Cheeseman, educational talk at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, 15 11 1993.

18. Ibid.

19. My interview with Cheeseman, op. cit.

20. Peter, Cheeseman, Introduction, Notes, and ‘Production Casebook’ on The Staffordshire Rebels, Theatre Quarterly, I, No. 1 (1971), p. 86102.

21. Peter, Cheeseman, Introduction to The Knotty (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 1317.

22. My interview with Peter Cheeseman, op. cit.

23. The Knotty, op. cit, p. xiv.

24. Peter, Cheeseman and Rony, Robinson, programme notes and commentary for revival of The Jolly Potters, 17 08 1992.

25. The Knotty, op. cit, p. xii.

26. Ibid., p. xv.

27. Cheeseman, interview with Roy Nevitt, op. cit., p. 27.

28. The Knotty, op. cit., p. xviii.

29. Nice Girls, unpublished manuscript, op. cit.

30. Peter, Cheeseman, notes to the scenes for The Fight for Shelton Bar, op. cit., p.54.

31. Ibid.

32. Cheeseman, interview with Roy Nevitt, op. cit., p. 28.

33. Ibid., p.27.

34. My interview with Cheeseman, op. cit.

35. My interview with Dave Rogers, 30 November 1993. Himself a folk singer in the MacCoil tradition, Rogers now questions his once-held view that folk music is the natural musical form of the working class, arguing that it is too closely associated with the white, English heritage and consequently has racist undertones and is inappropriate for the multicultural working class of this country in the 1990s. In Nice Girls, Rogers set out to extend the musical range of the Vic documentary by introducing a rhythmical poem, the ‘Blue Sisters Rap’, and by using the human voice as a musical instrument. However, the constraints of the rehearsal schedule prevented further experimentation with other forms such as a cappella singing and blues.

36. My interview with Bridget Bell, Gina Earl, Rose Hunter, and Brenda Proctor, Friday 3 December 1993. The role of the action group in the creation of the music for Nice Girls is significant. They are a performance group themselves, and have considerable experience of singing at rallies, demonstrations, and social clubs to raise funds and build solidarity. Though their personal musical interests include Tina Turner, soul, Motown, reggae, rap, pop of the ‘sixties and ’seventies, Donovan, and Dylan, they have chosen to sing songs in what they call ‘the Billy Bragg tradition’ and have produced a powerful and accomplished tape of their songs, No Going Back. They have also added stories of their experiences to their show, the latest being Rose Hunter's story of how she broke the security cordon to get food into the women occupying the mine.

37. My interview with Cheeseman, op. cit.

38. Ibid.

39. Nice Girls manuscript, op. cit.

40. My interview with Bell, Earl, Hunter, and Proctor, op. cit.

41. Ibid.

42. From the programme of Nice Girls, which opened on Wednesday 28 October 1993.

43. Nice Girls actuality tapes. Although the women have different perspectives, they prefer to speak about the occupation as a group. I have therefore not identified them individually in extracts taken from the actuality material. I gratefully acknowledge the permission of Bridget Bell, Gina Earl, Rose Hunter, Brenda Proctor, and Peter Cheeseman to use extracts from these tapes.

44. Nice Girls, manuscript, op. Cit.

45. Nice Girls, actuality tapes, op. cit.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. See, in particular, Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1963), which argues that the working class has been made not just by patterns of capital accumulation and market competition, but also by the ideas, aspirations, and struggles of workers striving to influence the conditions of their lives.

49. Nice Girls, actuality tapes, op. cit.

50. Nice Girls, manuscript, op. cit.

51. Nice Girls, actuality tapes, op. cit.

52. Nice Girls, manuscript, op. cit.

53. Nice Girls, actuality tapes, op. cit.

54. Ibid.

55. My interview with Bell, Earl, Hunter, and Proctor, op. cit.

56. Nice Girls, actuality tapes, op. cit.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid.

59. Nice Girls, manuscript, op. cit.

60. Benedict Nightingale ‘Fighting Wives at the Pit Head’, The Times, 22 10 1993.

61. Nice Girls, manuscript, op. cit.

62. Bridget, Bell, ‘The Fight Goes On’, Nice Girls programme, op. cit.

63. Arthur, Scargill, ‘History Distorted’, Socialist Review, No. 172 (1994), p. 17.

64. The history of the alternative theatre in Britain can be found in Catherine, Itzin, Stages in the Revolution (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), and Sandy, Craig, ed., Dreams and Deconstructions (Ambergate: Amber Lane Press, 1980). See also Eugene, Erven, Radical Popular Theatre (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988),Andrew, Davies, Other Theatres (London: Macmillan, 1987), and Clive, Barker, ‘Alternative Theatre/Political Theatre’, in Graham, Holderness, ed., The Politics of Theatre and Drama (London: Macmillan, 1992).

65. See Baz, Kershaw, The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention (London: Routledge, 1992).

66. Quoted by Lyn, Gardner, ‘The Final Curtain’, The Guardian, 29 11 1993.

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