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Strife review at Minerva Theatre, Chichester – ‘timely anatomy of industrial dispute’

Strife at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson Michael Hodgson, Antony Bunsee, Julian Firth, Madhav Sharma, Ian Hughes and William Gaunt in Strife at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson
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Bertie Carvel’s lead role in The Hairy Ape last autumn seems to have given him a taste for expressionistic images of industry. His directorial debut begins with a huge slab of metal suspended on chains, glowing molten orange as if fresh from the furnace. Slowly it swings across the bare stage to form the table for a company meeting, quenching instantly to cold grey.

It’s a brilliant effect and a searing way of opening John Galsworthy’s 1909 play about a strike at a tinplate works in Wales, where the fires have been out for six months. It suggests an almost elementally insurmountable difference between the beating heart of Welsh industry and calculating head of executive London. As Carvel emphasises by accompanying the sequence with a montage of voices referencing the current Welsh steel crisis, industrial disputes are also a hot issue right now.

Galsworthy’s remarkably balanced play, which hasn’t had a major revival since the National Theatre’s 1978 production, gives clear insight into the complex anatomy of a strike: why workers strike, why they call them off or “turn black leg”, why they persist in the face of extreme hardship and dwindling hope. Equally comprehensible are the many motives for companies to compromise, and to refuse. The role of women isn’t forgotten.

But ultimately this is a play about the destructiveness of human pride and the often selfish nature of personal sacrifice, as two men turn the strike into a clash of wills. Despite replacing Julian Glover at short notice, William Gaunt dominates as ageing company chairman John Anthony. He grows from a sort of boardroom Father Jack – barking “no compromise!” and “can’t be helped!” at the trustees from his wheelchair – into a tragic figure pained by the responsibility assumed for himself of being society’s backbone.

As David Roberts, the firebrand leader of the strike, Ian Hughes is as passionate and animated as Anthony is cold and resolute. At the close of Act 1, as the snow falls and the women starve, Roberts brings the strikers back from the brink of caving in by recasting the dispute as a mythic struggle against the blood-sucking monster of Capital. His speeches feel like meat to the others’ gruel, but their sustenance is deceptive.

This is the stand-out scene in a production that more often lacks atmosphere and emotional punch. The women’s scenes are weak and, surprisingly given the director, many performances feel underplayed physically. There’s a lot of watching men stand around mumbling into their neckties about dividends. But there are some cracking speeches and Carvel does convey a sense of the symbiosis between the two adversaries. Ultimately, they prove to be propped up less by their own fierce principles than by their opposition to each other.

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Timely anatomy of an industrial dispute in a patchy directorial debut from Bertie Carvel