Manchester Unity Theatre
‘Unity Theatre is performing a vital job for the labour movement. Labour's story - the dramatisation of the past and the clash of ideas for the future - can be admirably interpreted by the theatre. The commercial theatre is often unwilling to do this, that is why we must support our own theatre.'
Will Griffiths MP
Manchester Unity Theatre, launched in 1944 by former members of the Manchester Theatre Union, was one of the first theatre groups to affiliate to the Unity Theatre Society. Between 1944 and 1965, the group was responsible for at least sixty-three productions and in excess of one hundred and three performances. The new theatre group's aim, reflected in its constitution, was to provide an alternative to the established theatre that would both entertain and also educate working people about the wider labour movement.
|Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow c.1957
A proportion of Manchester Unity's repertoire focused on specific political issues. Productions included Leonard Irwin's play Wages of Eve, dealing with the issue of equal pay for women and A Rocket for the Governor, a comedy attacking the nuclear arms race, written by Manchester Unity members Aubrey Garson and F. G. Kelly. The group also performed works that explored the historical struggles of the labour movement. Popular productions included Robert Mitchell's play, The Match Girls, about the1888 strike for union rights by unskilled workers at the Byrant and May factory and Bill Rowbotham's stage adaptation of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
As part of its role, Manchester Unity also provided material in response to the needs of a particular group or campaign. This was sometimes in the form of an existing play. In 1946, for example, a production of George Leeson's play This Trampled Earth was performed at the request of the International Brigade Association to raise funds for Spanish Republican prisoners interred in a prisoner of war camp near Chorley. The group also wrote work to be performed in support of particular campaigns and provided topical reviews for local party wards and for union branches.
Manchester Unity was also essentially a mobile theatre, performing on many occasions in a variety of venues outside the formal theatre. One early example of this was the arena production of the play According to Law, performed at King's Hall, Belle Vue in 1949 before a meeting attended by the singer and activist Paul Robeson and three thousand supporters. The play was written by Noel Houston in response to the New International Club's request for assistance in the campaign to obtain the release of the Trenton Boys, six young men from Trenton, New Jersey who were awaiting execution.
Another example of this ability to relate a production to a particular issue was The Engineers' Pound. This short play, originally put on in July 1950 in a hotel in Salford, sponsored by the Union of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders, was performed on a flat-back lorry in Platt Fields, Manchester in November 1951 as part of the local Amalgamated Engineering Union campaign for a £1 per week increase, before an audience of two thousand engineers. In the following year Culture for Kids, a half-hour play based on Alice in Wonderland and written by Unity stalwart Vic Marshall, was produced as part of a local campaign to draw attention to the increasing invasion of American culture through the sale of imported horror comics and toy guns. The play was performed thirty times in schools and other venues around Manchester to over two thousand people.
Unlike the Unity Theatre groups in London, Glasgow and Merseyside, Manchester Unity did not have its own venue. The problem of raising funding for suitable premises was a matter of concern throughout the group's history, and many sites were considered, but the cost always proved to be prohibitive. One result of this was that Manchester Unity's public performances were subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office and local authority restrictions, unlike London Unity, who was able to shield its productions from these constraints by becoming a private theatre club. The lack of a permanent venue appears to have caused little problem in terms of censorship until the summer of 1953 when, in response to an appeal from The Committee for Clemency for the Rosenbergs, the group submitted a script to be performed at Cheetham Public Hall. Shortly before the planned performance, Manchester Unity secretary Ian Rattee was informed that the Lord Chamberlain's Office had refused to grant a license for the production. Initially, and contrary to the normal convention, no reasons were given for the refusal, no suggestions were made for alterations to make the script more acceptable and the original typescript was not returned. In response to the decision, a compilation of readings and poems, including Harold Horsfall's Poem for the Rosenbergs, were performed. When the Lord Chamberlain's office was pressed, their reason for refusal was a surprising one. A letter on 8 June 1953 explained that the decision was based on the fact that the play dealt with matters that were sub judice. When the issue was brought to the attention of the MP Sidney Silverman, his response suggests that the case is possibly unique. He wrote ‘I have never heard of a case where the doctrine of sub judice has been applied by a British Authority to a case in a foreign court.'
Ten years after its formation Manchester Unity had gained acceptance by the labour movement. The secretary's report for the year of 1956 records an increase in the numbers of individual and affiliate members and fourteen performances of five plays. However, a number of issues of the Manchester Unity Theatre Bulletin from this period record a series of difficulties, including the continuing problems caused by the lack of rehearsal facilities. By the end of 1960 a copy of the same newsletter notes that support from the trade union movement both nationally and locally was in decline. As a consequence, the group had produced little mobile work and audiences for its productions were below expectations. In contrast, the same issue also notes that Manchester Unity's production of Arthur Miller's play All My Sons at the Free Trade Hall was well received, and the group were confident enough to rent new rehearsal rooms. In an attempt to stimulate more interest, a decision was made to move away from what the June/July 1961 issue of The Bulletin refers to as the ‘sermonising' of ‘left-wing' drama. This change in focus was signalled by the production of the first two plays in The Wesker Trilogy. In fact, the 1963 Jubilee issue of The Bulletin reports that all three of Arnold Wesker's plays were performed in 1963 and also records the success of Albert Dobson's one act comedy Corky at the Wythenshawe Civic Week Drama Festival.
Over the same period the group's lack of rehearsal facilities were an ongoing concern. This difficulty, together with the continuing problem of falling audience numbers and the lack of requests for mobile work, may have contributed to the theatre group's eventual decline. The same issue of the newsletter also notes that the Library Theatre's staging of Arnold Wesker's play Roots, shortly before Manchester Unity's own production, had reduced potential audience numbers. This clash is indicative of the shift in the traditional theatre towards dramas that featured working class characters and a growing willingness to tackle political and social issues that in earlier decades would have been the domain of alternative theatre groups. It is possible that this shift was also a factor in the group's subsequent decline. However, Manchester Unity had over the years managed to survive many potential setbacks. Perhaps more significant in explaining the group's demise is that the same issue of The Bulletin mentions that Unity Members Pam and Ian Rattee had moved to Leeds, Yorkshire, and it is possible that the loss of two such key figures may have been the fatal blow. Over the years Ian and Pam Rattee, together with Joan and Vic Marshall, who also moved to Yorkshire in late 1959, had been pivotal members of Manchester Unity, taking on between them numerous creative and organisational roles. Our archive suggests that the theatre group did continue for another two years and its final production was probably O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in March 1965.
Over its lifetime Manchester Unity developed a particular identity, bringing an alternative form of theatre to Manchester, and despite the lack of a permanent venue, for twenty years its dedicated band of members provided a source of alternative entertainment and political education for the working people of Manchester.