5-Star Review of 'We're Not Going Back' in What's On Stage 

'It's grim and it's gritty, yet it's packed full, too, with uplifting fun, sparkle and laughter. Wonderfully acted, wonderfully sung, wonderfully written, We're Not Going Back is an all round triumph for the Red Ladder Theatre Company and writer, ex-Chumbawamba guitarist, Boff Whalley.

'Via skilful interweaves of humorous narrative song, anecdote and banter, we are taken back to 1984-5 when, in the fictional South Yorkshire pit village of Carston, the lives of three very different sisters take a sudden turn for the extraordinary and are changed forever...' (more here)


University Campus Oldham
22 Sep 2014 – 23 Sep 2014

CAST, Doncaster
24 Sep 2014 – 25 Sep 2014

Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
26 Sep 2014

Welfare, Ystradgynlais, Swansea
2 Oct 2014

Cwmaman Theatre, Aberdare
3 Oct 2014

The Royalty, Sunderland
8 Oct 2014

Arts Centre Washington
9 Oct 2014

Delaval Arts Centre, Seaton
10 Oct 2014

Queens Hall Arts Centre, Hexham
11 Oct 2014

The New Bradford Playhouse, Bradford
15 Oct 2014

Create Theatre, Mansfield
17 Oct 2014

Miner's Welfare, Hemsworth
18 Oct 2014

City Varieties, Leeds
19 Feb 2015 – 21 Feb 2015


  Image: Martin Shakeshaft 

Some time in the summer of 2013, Unite the union approached Red Ladder Theatre with an offer to part-fund a play that would mark the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. Rod Dixon at Red Ladder got in touch with me about writing it – Unite’s local organisers had enjoyed the other musical plays we’d done – and I said yes, immediately. Absolutely immediately. Then I had a quick think.

“But it can’t have miners in it. No coppers, no picket line battles, no Scargill, no union hall meetings where black-faced blokes in safety helmets and huge boots roar their defiance and burn pictures of Thatcher. And it can’t have anyone shouting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out!”

Because the more interesting story, the one that at the time was kept out of the mainstream media, was the story of the thousands of women who organised to support the strike. The Women Against Pit Closures groups that fed the striking men from day one, that collected money and food and toys for the kids at Christmas, the women whose lives were turned upside-down during that year.

So Rod suggested this to the union, and they agreed. Then as with everything I’ve written that has its roots in history, there began a period of reading and learning, halfway between Google and public meetings, scouring museums, and always reading and learning. When writing about history I’ll always try to look for the things I didn’t already know or assume – on the assumption that if I find out something interesting, most of the audience will find it interesting, too. When I was writing about the suffragettes, I didn’t know about the white feather campaign, or that most women didn’t actually get the vote until 1928; these two discoveries set up the play for me.

What I found out from women involved in the miners’ strike was that, for many of them, it wasn’t just a year of transformation and discovery, of hardships overcome and battles won; it was also a year of fun, of enjoyment. “The best year of my life” is a phrase I heard from women on more than a couple of occasions, usually announced as if it was a guilty secret that needed to be aired. This became the backbone of the play; three women whose lives were not only transformed but who would come to realise that they were having, literally, the time of their lives.

So the play’s about three sisters – yes, I read Chekhov’s play and stole that strange mixture of closeness and rivalry – living through that year, and all the hardships and battles and injustices going on in the strike are not played out but instead brought into the small world of the sitting room, the kitchen, the churchyard.

Onstage there are the three sisters and a woman musician. The musician is Beccy Owen, since Rod’s been working with her on various projects and we both agreed that she’d be perfect. She’s not only playing the music but being musical director, helping to stitch the songs I’ve written into the script and into the performance. She’s a right laugh, an’ all. Very dry and funny. She does her own solo albums, plays various instruments, and sings like an angel. With a potty mouth. The first time she sang one of the tunes from the play, in my cellar with me and Rod, the song went somewhere else, up through the floorboards and out into the street.

Rod had already cast the youngest of the three sisters – Claire-Marie Seddon – because he’d seen her performing a few times, knew she had a great singing voice, and (the clincher) she also played brass instruments. So we had two women to find for the play. Chris and Rod put out a ‘casting call’. Within a couple of days they started to get CVs and photographs sent, emailed and posted, from women wanting to audition for the two remaining parts. The pile grew and grew. Within a month Red Ladder had received 1,385 applications. (Yes, 1,385).

Somehow this number was whittled down to 30, and in mid-March we all gathered at Leeds City Varieties for a day of singing, performing, shouting and miming as Rod, Chris, myself and Beccy sorted out who’d slot easiest into the roles. What a strange day. If you haven’t ever witnessed an auditioning day (and this was only my second) then I can best describe it as surreal. There’s an inevitable buzz of tension and nervousness mixed with the strange energy of a big bunch of people wanting to be noticed, wanting to show how good they all are. And they all were really good, an’ all. So good it hurt to realise that most of them would go away disappointed, so good it made me wonder at the ruthlessness of it all. At one stage the women paired up and read sections of script, as characters speaking words they hadn’t previously seen. It was both lovely to hear the play being spoken aloud for the first time, but at the same time alarming that this was part of another whittling-down process. I went and sat up in one of the old Edwardian boxes and kept quiet – the tension was so unbearable I wondered about re-writing the script for 30 women. Rod said, ‘Don’t be daft, we’ll never fit them all in the van’.

So we worked out who’d be our final two actors, Rod broke the decision to everyone and the fizzing energy quietly slipped out by the back door as we slumped and sighed. The two women chosen were Stacey Sampson and Vicky Brazier, incredible actors with incredible voices. Over the next few weeks I went away and continued to write and re-write, to change lyrics and alter melodies. Beccy ran away to Nepal to escape the madness for two short weeks and then bam, here we are again, final rehearsal script done, songs about to be demo’d, all of us readying to gather to begin the process of getting We’re Not Going Back onto the stage.

There are loads of things to do, loose ends to be tied up, ideas to be chased down. At the moment it looks like there’ll be the Unite Brass Band accompanying the play at several performances; they’ll play specially-arranged versions of songs from the play as people take their seats, and will play out the audience at the end. Beautiful.

We’re Not Going Back premieres in early July at the Durham Miners’ Gala, where it will play in the incredible (and incredibly historic) union conference hall there. After that it will pitch up in both established theatres and in miners’ welfares and pit village workingmen’s clubs before returning to City Varieties in January 2015; fittingly about a year since the story really began.

Red Bladder rehearsal 

We’re Not Getting Funded

July 19 • 2014

Three days ago I sat on a beaten-up sofa in a converted Methodist church on the fringes of Leeds city centre watching the first run-through (no holding your script in your hand!) of the new Red Ladder play ‘We’re Not Going Back’. It’s a play what I wrote, as Ernie Wise used to say – I wrote it and then in proper Red Ladder fashion I gave it to the director and the actors to play with, to improvise, to chop and change. At Red Ladder everyone in the room gets a say, and gets listened to. It’s a way of working that I think pays dividends: it empowers people, makes a piece of work less self-indulgent, teaches people to work without suffocating hierarchies and gives everyone a stake in the production. There’s never much money going around at this level of theatre, so getting job satisfaction – a real sense of ‘owning’ the work you do – is really important.

During the run-through’s ‘interval’, the rehearsal room’s only toilet suddenly blocks up and overflows. Stacey shrieks as Rod Dixon (Artistic Director) breaks off from discussing lines to dive across the space and clear up a minor flood. Panic over, the run-through continues. On the battered sofa, cradling a cup of tea beside lighting director Tim Skelly, I have to blink back tears a couple of times during the second half. I cry easily anyway, but I’m so desperately involved in the words that the three actors (Victoria Brazier, Stacey Sampson and Claire-Marie Seddon) are saying, and the way they’ve brought them into the world in better shape than they left my laptop, that I get caught up and carried along. Over at the side, poised behind a keyboard and several small mountains of paper, Beccy Owen is the bundle of energy who’s taken the songs by the scruffs of their little necks and got them all dressed and ready for rehearsal. Together these four lasses, this team of people holding their bladders (red bladders!) because the toilet is now out of action, this strange and lovely old buildingful of purpose and craft; somehow this typifies a theatre company wanting more than bums-on-seats or nice reviews in the newspapers.

So it’s sort of fitting (and somewhat sickening) that this run-through of the play – which will go on to play miners’ welfare halls along with traditional theatres, starting next week in the vast, circular, polished wood meeting room of the Durham Miners during the annual Gala – should be the backdrop for the morning’s shocking news that Red Ladder has been dropped from the Arts Council’s NPO grant hand-out. ‘Fitting’ in that the political nature of the current Parliamentary (as in, both sides of the House) obsession with ‘austerity’ could rarely be more easily illustrated, ‘fitting’ in that it confirms that artists making explicitly political work run the risk of being discarded and unsupported.

Just up the road from Red Ladder’s tiny office in Leeds city centre is Opera North. Most of the people reading this blog will already have seen the figures, but it’s worth reiterating that Red Ladder’s annual grant of £165,000 has been reduced to nil while Opera North’s annual grant has been raised by 6% to £10.4 million. I’m not disparaging opera; but for one art form to be so disproportionately subsidised over another is plainly obscene. The obvious assumption is that opera, which traditionally belongs to the elite classes, is able to effectively pull strings in powerful circles.

Class is an issue that artists tend to keep quiet about; there’s even a rumour going round the galleries and rehearsal rooms that artists are ‘classless’. I can’t help thinking how convenient this idea must be to the overwhelmingly middle class arts council establishment – watching the live press conference announcing the grant allocations on the morning of this run-through, it’s hard to listen past the plummy accents and institutionalised language that still dominate art’s governing bodies.

I’ve never liked exclusivity in art, in language or in politics. Elites are generally dominated by well-off white men anxious to circle the wagons and defend their cultural and political piece of dirt against the intruding oiks.

Red Ladder employs two full-time workers: Rod Dixon and Chris Lloyd. I reckon they wouldn’t be offended if I referred to them as the oiks rather than the establishment (!) They’re both of them steeped in the northern English culture they were brought up in, both more fish ‘n’ chips than wine and canapés. As such, they have an interest in making theatre that appeals to any class of audience, but especially to those people who don’t normally go to the theatre. Those people who are put off by the price of a ticket to see the latest production of Shakespeare, put off by theatre’s perceived disconnection from everyday popular culture.

Red Ladder’s recent community play ‘Promised Land’ – written by Anthony Clavane, a Leeds-born writer – featured a cast of people playing football fans, Leeds United fans, and drew an audience of both theatre-goers and Leeds United supporters. Some of the cast, and many of the people in the audience, had never been to the theatre before. Clavane’s recent play about rugby league commentator Eddie Waring, after a short and successful spell in the foyer at West Yorkshire Playhouse, was taken up by Red Ladder and sent out to the rugby league towns, and played successfully in the function rooms of the rugby clubs. These plays typify a kind of theatre that serves well the legacy of the late John McGrath in his seminal book ‘A Good Night Out’, a rallying-cry for inclusivity, for reaching out, for popularising theatre, and for making it relevant and important.

I visited Hemsworth Miners’ Welfare a few months ago and talked to some of the old miners there, men who’d been through the 1984/5 strike and seen the pit closed, watched the village and the estates around it lose its lifeblood. These were people whose lives had been shattered by Thatcherism; the welfare hall now a dilapidated building on its uppers, surviving on bingo nights and local cabaret turns. I was there to talk to BBC Radio Leeds about my involvement in the strike in 1984, about the miners’ support group we set up in Armley, Leeds. I asked the Hall’s secretary whether they’d be interested in having a play on, about the strike. It’s got music and songs and jokes, I assured them.

“Ooh I don’t know about that. We’ve never had a play on. Well I mean we’ve had comedians. Some good comics used to come here y’know. But I don’t know about a play. How many people are in it? We’d never afford it.”

I told him to phone Rod and Chris. He did, and they suggested, ‘How about we invite people along, and pass a bucket round. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to pay?’ The secretary said yes. That might not tick boxes, but for me it’s good theatre, inclusive theatre, the best kind of theatre.

The last of my plays that Red Ladder took out was ‘Sex & Docks & Rock ‘n’ Roll’, which toured various (and many-varied) venues including the Easington Colliery Club up in the North East, another small town decimated by the shutting down of the mines. It’s a place that, since then, has never recovered, all quiet streets and suspicious-looking locals (the local chippy does a fine mushy pea fritter, mind). The play was put on in a large and largely-deserted room of the Club (low ceiling, strip-lights, glitter decorations, bingo machine) while the main bar was full. It was a fiver on the door to see the play, and that included a free pint; still, only about a dozen locals came through, more bemused than enthusiastic. By the time the show had finished, all were standing and applauding, shouting for more. It’s these nights, as much as the sell-out audiences at City Varieties Music Hall, that for me typify Red Ladder’s work.

Sadly, I fear that it’s these nights that mean increasingly less to the box-tickers at the Arts Council, and especially those whose directives steer the funding policies. During the live feed of the Arts Council’s press conference I was disgusted to hear chairman Peter Gazalgette express gratitude for the work done by George Osborne “for generous funding of the arts”. Eh? How can the people who swim so effortlessly around that swirling cesspool of privilege and power understand the importance of taking theatre into places like Easington Colliery Club?

Red Ladder in its recent history has supported and encouraged emerging writers, actors and theatre-makers, some of whom had little chance to develop elsewhere. Writers like Emma Adams, Ben Tagoe, Alice Nutter and Dom Grace, writers committed to the idea of theatre as inclusive and open, not as an alien and exclusive world ‘somewhere over there’. Before I began to write for theatre I spent three decades in a pop group, never once applying for or receiving any funding from arts organisations. That’s the nature of pop’s place in capitalism – it’s built to survive in the marketplace, it’s an artform that, separate from the live concert, is easily reproducible, you can stick it on a CD and sell it piece by piece. Theatre is different; it is by its nature live, and only live. In order to make it accessible, in order to have ticket prices low enough for everyone to afford (one of Red Ladder’s important aims with every show), it needs funding, needs subsidising. The money that the Arts Council dish out doesn’t come from George Osborne, it comes from us as taxpayers. It comes from ordinary people who buy lottery tickets. It’s our money, yet we have no choice in how it’s divvied out; the (unelected) Arts Council send out people in the regions to fill in forms and report back to the plummy voices at the top who, ignoring the clamour for a less London-centric hand-out, rubber-stamp the usual million-pound pay-outs to the same few organisations.

Bitter? You bet. Unashamedly so. Inequality should make us all bitter, not least when it ties in so neatly with the current ‘austerity’ drive that somehow translates neatly as three-quarters of the population working harder and for less money whilst the top 25% slither, slug-like, through the increasing profits. How can I not be bitter about arts hand-outs to one opera company in my home city amounting to over £10 million every year? How can I watch these actors in this ageing Methodist chapel working so hard to create something powerful and unique, something meaningful and relevant, whilst hearing the repeated replaying in my head of Gazalgette saying his humble thank yous to George Osborne?

There’s a political element in all this, of course. As Rod points out, there are precious few arts organisations left – let alone theatre companies – who actively challenge the political status quo. Who expressly, and as a point of policy, support those working for social justice and fairness. Whose work isn’t afraid to point fingers and shout about the world we live in. How convenient that a company like Red Ladder, with its history of radical politics, should have its funding slashed at a time when dissent throughout British culture is being stifled and hidden, when the media is too scared to report on demonstrations, strikes and political activism.

This is not to denigrate the work (and the funding) of other local arts groups. Not at all. I reckon there’s space and support for all of us – and I love the work that other local groups like Slung Low and Interplay are doing. But somehow it’s been decided that Red Ladder should be hung out to dry. Why? I can imagine someone from the Arts Council saying that certain boxes weren’t ticked, quotas weren’t filled. That the impenetrable language of form-filling wasn’t adequately parroted. Any number of excuses to cover the fact that this is a political decision.

Over the past two or three years I’ve been in countless Red Ladder audiences – sell-out audiences – where everyone has laughed, clapped, and sang along. Felt involved, not alienated, by theatre. I’ve seen that theatre can be a part of people’s lives, not just an expensive evening’s entertainment. Isn’t this what the Arts Council should be promoting? One of Red Ladder’s principles is to keep down the price of seeing a show. The cost of tickets for theatre is one of the biggest reasons why it retains a middle class audience, why so many people have never been to the theatre. I’ve sat in the company’s rented basement office and watched Chris and Rod discussing how to keep prices down, how to encourage people to see stuff – and I’ve seen, too, that I can go online with a credit card and buy a seat in the Circle at Leeds Grand to see Opera North’s La Traviata for £68.

And so back to the play, to the rehearsal. In the two or three days since the announcement was made, messages of support for Red Ladder have been flooding in from all over the place. A fighting fund has been set up. But more than that, Red Ladder have declared that they won’t be wearied by any sense of injustice; that they’ll find a way to work, somehow – not least with the help of supporters and well-wishers – that any bitterness be replaced with a positive commitment to continuing work. When all’s said and done, it’s about the work, and the work is always thorough, popular and important. Although the company relied on that funding, there’ll be other ways to raise money to produce important and timely theatre. There has to be.

The four women on the creaking, not-quite-finished revolving stage set up in the old church hall stand to sing a final song, an amalgam of songs they’ve sung as characters in the play. It’s a finale about change, about hope, and it seems to fit, beautifully, this weird mix-up of a day.

Ordinary folks can live

Extraordinary lives

The distrust and the doubt can disappear 

For it only takes a spark

To turn the whole world upside down

And light the fire on an extraordinary year

It’s coming round

It’s coming round