Worktown by Michael Symonds Roberts

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BBC Radio 4, 11 September 2008

Set in 1930s Bolton (here given the fictional name Worktown), this play offers an Under Milk Wood-style picture of working-class life in a variety of locations ranging from a church funeral, to an illegal gambling den, an abbatoir, and a pub. The story is told by John Law (Russell Dixon), who is actually dead; it is he who is being buried at the funeral. Like some godlike figure looking down on high at the Worktown people below, he tells us what life was really like at that time; how people were close yet too close; mutually supportive yet self-interested; poor yet rapacious. The play itself is constructed episodically, with dramatic sequences such as a woman being knocked down by a passing cart, which swerves to avoid an escaping boy. Another sequence taking place in an illegal gambling den shows a young son running away from his father, who has forced him to watch a cock-fight and given him the claws of the dead cock as a souvenir. Later on two employees in the abbatoir are confronted by the local gang-leader who threatens to turn the dogs on them if they do not pay their dues on an illegal loan. With ingenious use of sound-effects, director Susan Roberts made us uncomfortably aware of how elemental life was at that time; people had little money to spend, and frequently ran the risk of being harmed, as they borrowed money off local racketeers. The sound of cow’s flesh being cut in the abbatoir took on a symbolic meaning; if the employees didn’t pay up, they would meet a similar fate from the racketeer.


At the same time Worktown transformed the characters into mythic figures; in a soliloquy Law suggested that, despite their hardships, they would continue living their lives and trying to educate their children in the best way they could. Life might have been monotonous, even difficult in the 1930s, but people still had the determination to continue. This play was no nostalgic evocation of a bygone age, reminiscent of the old Hovis advertisements directed by Ridley Scott. Rather it showed how the working class of seventy years ago actually worked hard to sustain the spirit of community, while at the same time thinking only of themselves.