The Cradle Will Rock

Our critics rating: 
Friday, 26 November, 2010
Review by: 
Peter Brown

This is a revival of a musical written in the 1930s by Marc Blitzstein, a rather well-connected composer who was friends with Leonard Bernstein and Bertolt Brecht, and the first production of this work in 1937 was directed by Orson Welles.

Essentially, this is an allegorical piece describing the corruption of capitalism, and the efforts of the workers of a fictitious town - 'Steeltown' - to unionise. Mr Mister (excellently played by a well-cast Aaron Shirley) owns most - if not all - of the town. His entrepreneurial tentacles embrace almost every aspect of life in the locality including the 'free press', the doctor, the police and judiciary etc..

The show starts with a prostitute waiting for punters on the street. Her first customer claims to have only a few cents, but soon produces dollar bills when a policeman arrives on the scene. The prostitute ends up at the police station along with members of the town's Liberty Committee who are loyal supporters of Mr Mister, and who have been inadvertently arrested during a demonstration supporting unionisation. A series of vignettes follow which show us the connections between various townsfolk and Mr Mister. We also encounter Mr Mister’s spoilt, idle son and his wife who supports artists and musicians who have to ingratiate themselves to get her financial backing.

Accompanied by just piano, the musical is mostly sung-through, so there's little in the way of dialogue. The singing is impressive and polished, and the there's an operatic quality to the composition which reminded me of the style of Kurt Weil. The piano accompaniment runs under most of the action almost like screenings of silent movies, but on occasions I found it a little overpowering and distracting. There's not much in the way of a set (designed here by the team of Lisa Engle and Hannah Penfold). A couple of simple vertical and horizontal girders suggest the town's industrial focus, but that’s enough to provide atmosphere and define the acting area.

'The Cradle Will Rock' was a brave musical to attempt in the gloomy, post-crash days of the 1930s. In fact, the first production was funded by a government arts project but the show was closed down at the last minute ostensibly owing to lack of funds, but more likely due to the subject matter. Undaunted, Welles and his associates rented another theatre and with just piano accompaniment, performed the show with the actors having to sing from the audience as they had been banned by their union from taking part. So, in a very real sense, this is a play that has some importance in terms of theatrical history and one that deserves a new hearing. And Mehmet Ergen has kept a faithful hand on the directorial tiller, opting for the same simple accompaniment as the original, and keeping the atmosphere relatively light whilst dealing with more serious elements with sensitivity. The substantial cast he’s mustered work extremely well as an ensemble while providing well-defined characterisations throughout. Overall, it’s refreshing to see something different in terms of a musical, and a little more stimulating and thought-provoking in terms of the political nature of the subject matter.

I suspect that audiences in the 1930s would have found much more to laugh at or indeed to shout at than modern audiences as they were closer to the kind of corruption depicted here. But the show is not just worth seeing purely as a piece of theatrical history. It's sometimes moving, sometimes ironic and certainly fun too. It also has some relevance to the state of unions today, and one of the placards in the show which declared 'Cuts Cost Lives’ obviously resonated with many in the audience. Well-worth seeing.


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