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Last updated:24 April 2015

Joan Marshall

(Summary of tape 160)

Joan Marshall and her husband Vic had already been involved in amateur theatre very extensively and when they came to Manchester they linked up with the Unity Theatre. This was their political life, from 1951 to 1959, when they moved to the Bradford area. Joan was mainly a performer, whilst her husband was involved in the administration of the theatre company.

Manchester Unity Theatre production of GB Shaw's Arms and the Man - Joan Marshall second from left

Manchester Unity Theatre production of GB Shaw's Arms and the Man - Joan Marshall is second from left

They also wrote scripts - not in the normal sort of way, but when a political situation arose, they would write the script, rehearse it and then perform it. One example was when there was an engineers' strike. They wrote the script one morning and in the afternoon went out and performed it on the back of a flat back lorry to the 2,000 striking engineers.

Perhaps their most successful production was about unpleasant comics coming from the U.S. It was part of a general campaign in their area which helped to get them banned.

They wrote many highly political revues, which were very much of the moment.  There were songs, sketches and little plays - all great fun. They also did old-time music hall for old peoples' homes and hospitals. They also put on conventional plays, such as a one-act Chekov play in one of the roughest pubs in Salford, rather an uncomfortable experience.

Most people in the Unity Theatre were Communist Party members, but it was difficult finding good parts for women, as so many plays were about men. One exception was the play about the Bryant and May match girls' strike, in which Joan played the strike leader. In Brecht there was one good part for a woman - Mother Courage, but against that there are perhaps 20 good roles for men.

Joan thought probably their least effective performances were their public performances, when they were performing mainly to the converted, and their audiences were relatively small. Their most effective political work was when they were invited by trade unions, co-operatives and similar organisations to do performances that related directly to their own experiences. For example, The Rochdale Pioneers, for co-operative groups, The Match Girls for trade unionists, The Culture for Kids, about the comics, for the teachers, especially NUT branches.

Joan felt one reason that political theatre groups became less active was because both commercial and amateur theatre took up more political themes.

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