Sunday, February 10, 2013

Unity Theatre - Mobile Unit - 1954 (The People's Theatre)

Unity Theatre Mobile unit
By Ann Shure

World News
20th February 1954

The telephone rang early one Saturday morning, "The coach leaves the theatre at  twelve sharp," said a soft Irish voice.

"Now you won't be late, will you ? We have to make Birmingham by six."

I was off on a theatrical weekend.Unity's mobile theatre group were to play in Birmingham! that night, and I had been invited to make the journey with them.

This was just one of many long trips this group has made since it first produced  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists three years ago. Sometimes the cast are lucky and the show is in a suburb of  London or one of the Home Counties. Other times it's as far afield as Chatham or Wiltshire. Then they must travel all day—with a Saturday morning off from work—to make a 7.30 curtain, with an all-night drive back to London. They do two, three or four shows a month—it depends on bookings.

Who are their audiences? Trade union branches.  Co-op  groups—anyone,  in fact, who can pay the £20 coverage and 1s. a mile travelling expenses. The cast,of course, are voluntary—the money
covers expenses.

The week-end I went, they were off to Cradley Heath, famous for its chain makers, who were one of the first groups to strike in the -last century for organised unions. The chainmakers are now part of the engineering union—and it was three branches of the A.E.U. who had clubbed  together to  bring  Unity to Birmingham that week-end.

I made the theatre on time, to find the grey-painted,  converted  coach  (a gift from the trade union movement two years ago) waiting for the cast. Only three other  people  were  there.  Ten minutes

later stragglers began arriving.and by 12.30 we were away, to pick up one or two people en route. We Were Off!

It was a bitterly cold morning, touched off with a blue sky and a glinting sun. We swung out on to the Great North Road, fierce red letters painted on the side of  the coach announcing our purpose—"Unity Mobile Theatre". Inside,-  three double'  seats  had  been removed—to leave room for scenery and props. The skips—blue hessian bags marked with the name of each character in the play, and the responsibility of the actor—were loaded into the boot. With everyone in (there were nineteen people that day, including the driver), more scenery and a table were stacked up until  we  looked  like some crazy removal van.

Everyone doubled in,this group: Harry Johnson, Unity's mobile organiser, drove half of the way, shifted scenery, planned the route (and bore the wise-cracks !) as well as taking a sizeable part in the play. The other driver. Bill Taylor, also handled scenery and acted. In fact, the only two people on that trip who didn't  go on the stage were producer Sheila Conchie,  and  me—and  even Sheila made "noises off" of a baby crying!

Established Traditions

Warned of approaching ice, I'd taken two sweaters, a scarf, and numerous aids against cold, including a hot-water bottle, which someone later filled with hot tea!The cast must have been acclimatised,for no one else looked so loaded. It seemed there were established traditions in the coach. Those at the front did an impromptu  rehearsal,  throwing  lines from one to t'other with bewildering rapidity. The forgetful could depend on the producer, who knew every word by heart. The men sitting at the back played cards until it was too dark to see. Then everyone joined in a sing-song—familiar songs of the Labour movement, songs the cast made up as they went along with topical quirks and personal references.

The coach had taboos, too, built up over long weeks of travelling together; a sort of social etiquette on the road. It wasn't done to sing in a built-up area after dark. They called it a BUA. And after midnight both talking and singing were barred; people might want to sleep.

We'd stopped for a meal— egg,sausages and beans—about 3 p.m. Then fog began to creep up on us, a wraith like misty fog that blotted out trees and fields, seeped in among us as a miserable dampness, and made driving a hideous strain. The coach seemed to be travelling on a thin white strip of sanity in a cloudy darkening world.

Six o'clock came and went and we still hadn't reached Birmingham. The fog lifted—then thickened again, and finding our way became more difficult. 6.30 . . . 6.45 ... 7 p.m. Birmingham loomed up but Cradley Heath was still elusive.

The curtain was due up at 7.30. Scenery had to be unloaded, and the stage dressed—no luxury of a stage staff here. Costumes needed unpacking, actors dressed, make-up applied. It looked as if  Unity  weren't  going to make this deadline. Yet no one seemed unduly perturbed.


At 7.20 we rolled up outside green painted doors. Figures gleamed dimly out at us. "Glad you made it. Thought you wouldn't come."

Back came Unity's hurt reply : "But we said we would!" The blase indolence of  a few minutes before had vanished.  The boot was opened,scenery lugged out; figures rushed by carrying planks, flats and vague bundles. In the seeming chaos everyone had a job and jumped to it.

No one seemed to be giving orders. A voice whispered in my ear "See if you can dig up some tea for the cast."But finding tea in a Birmingham suburb on a foggy night is like trying to find a trace of humanity in Foster Dulles!

The stage was set and the cast made up before I returned with a triumphant enamel pot. How they did it I'll never know, but the show began at 7.45—a bare fifteen minutes late.

There were about 130 in the audience—average, I was told, in that area and in bad weather. Unity Mobile has played to as many as 1,000.
The Performance

For a cast who had just made an icy 120-mile journey,with no break in between, I thought the performance was good. Later they told me one man substituted his own lines ; someone else let a dialect slip. I didn't  notice—nor, I'm sure, did the rest of the audience,mainly engineers and their wives. One man I met  had been a member of the Labour Party for over twenty years; normally he never visited a theatre but this was different.

And his one ambition  after the show was to get the signatures of the cast of this working-class theatre.

After the performance came a hot meal; chop, spuds, bread and marg,tea. It's not everywhere they get it, and it's a welcome prelude to that drive back. Over the meal they discussed the performance, analysed its faults, compared reactions.

Then we were on our way back. We made the outskirts of London by 6.30. The lucky ones got home by seven; last off the coach by 8.30 to nine. The cast had a rehearsal that afternoon at 2.30 at Unity's King's Cross headquarters. Me, I was still in bed !

Ann Shure
February 1954


Unity Theatre was established in 1936 and was based from 1937 at Goldington Street, St Pancras, London NW1 - the Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1975.

At the time time as the Mobile was touring in early 1954, a new comedy "Timid People" written by George Leeson opened at Unity Theatre - The play was based on a Chinese short story, presenting an amusing situation which arises in a small Chinese village when two young people decide to marry, despite the objections of their parents

Production was by Harry Hancock 

Surely, the working class deserves the rebirth of Unity Theatre in the Capital