Playing the Changes

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Review of Banner Theatre 30th Anniversary, Birmingham

Over 30 years ago a group of politically active performers in Birmingham set up Banner Theatre to produce shows about working class communities. In April this year they celebrated their achievements with the publication of a songbook, Singing the Changes, and a two-day event in Birmingham which included a preview of their latest show, Wild Geese. Banner has survived some difficult years for radical theatre and maintained strong links with the communities which inspired its work.

The first Banner production was a stage version of Charles Parker's radio ballad about workers in the coal industry with the actual words of miners being spoken by actors and then reinforced by radical folk songs. Later productions drew on Brecht, music hall and agit-prop techniques to create a montage of documentary, film, song and movement. There was a lot of optimistic humour in their early work.

The preparation of a show usually began with lots of interviews. Frances Rifkin, for ten years a director of the company, describes being sent for a year to live on the Lincoln estate in Corby, researching a show about the Corby steel dispute. The material produced by such interviews would then be assembled into a performance that included songs and sketches. This would then be shown to the people it was about for feedback before a final version was ready to tour.

Banner's most successful early show was Saltley Gate, which dramatised the closure of the Birmingham coke depot during the 1972 miners' strike when thousands of local workers joined a miners' picket line. The high point of this show comes towards the end when some of the performers begin to sing 'close the gates, close the gates.' Suddenly other performers come through the doors at the back of the audience and urge everybody to move with them singing onto the increasingly crammed stage. Some of this excitement was recreated in the closing minutes of the recent two-day celebration when Banner was joined on stage by miners' wives, trade unionists and many of those present, singing 'Close the gates'.

Banner's determination to create shows from the testimony of the rank and file hasn't always been popular with union leaders. The steel workers' union was the first to try to ban a show when it urged its members not to watch Steel, which depicted the 1980 steel strike; a message from the officials urging members not to go ironically built bigger audiences in steel communities.

In the last 30 years Banner has covered issues that range from the miners' strike to anti-racism and the Vietnam War.

Banner's latest show, Wild Geese, focuses on the people at the receiving end of global capitalism. Its opening sequence details the way populations have been shifted forcibly by the slave trade. Recent politicians are shown urging workers to migrate to Britain.

We then see filmed interviews with nurses who came here as migrants and others who came as refugees. They talk about some of the racism they faced. These interviews are intercut with powerful, often very moving, songs that draw on reggae, jazz and Middle Eastern music.

Stark contrasts are made between company profits and the workers they exploit. Film of a Wal-Mart executive boasting about billions in profit is followed by the information that up to 80 percent of Wal-Mart products are made by workers in China who are paid a dollar a day.

The final section of Wild Geese concentrates on the fightback and includes film of Asian women workers marching against sweatshop conditions in Birmingham, and film of the campaign of Canary Wharf cleaners for a decent wage. The show is a fine continuation of Banner's campaigning theatre.