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World première of Hard Graft

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: December 16, 2013

By John Workman

  • The whole cast of Hard Graft on stage at the Wednesbury Town Hall

  • Fred has words with his father at the tay table

  • Tilly comforts Isaac as things get tough during the strike

  • The Connelly family grieve as daughter Tilly dies of TB

  • The tube strikers and families sing All for Twenty Three Bob

  • The tube strikers are told what they have to do

  • Hard Graft writer Brendan Hawthorne was the narrator

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HISTORY was made at Wednesbury Town Hall last Saturday, December 7th, when a production of Hard Graft – All for Twenty-Three Bob was staged for the very first time.

Written by Brendan Hawthorne and directed by Kerry Halford, it told the story of the struggle by Wednesbury tube workers during the strike of 1913, and the successful outcome that finally led to a parity in pay with their Brummie counterparts.

In front of a sold-out auditorium, poet, musician and now formidable playwright Brendan, spoke of his determination to see a dream of his that began two decades ago finally materialise.

"Towards the end of 2012 I was commissioned to write a play based on the story of the 1913 Wednesbury Tube Strike," said Brendan, "and the musical play about to unfold marks a 20 year obsession I have had with the plight of these incredible fellow Wednesburyonians.

"The play tells of the 200 Wednesbury workers who will fight to the bitter end for equal pay with those tube workers who plied their trade in Birmingham, and gain a living wage of 23 shillings per week.

"The strike, which lasted two and a half bitter months, resulted in at least 25,000 men in the region walking out and the Midlands metal industry grinding to a halt. The impact was such that victory was achieved and the men returned to work just a year before the outbreak of the First World War, in which many would be vital to the war effort.

"It also tells the story of austerity, low pay, and poor socio-economic conditions, as well as charity and humour. It follows one fictional family (Isaac and Lizzy Connelly and their two children Fred and Tilly) struggling below the poverty line, and then looks beyond their plight to the broader issues relative to how the strike affected the whole of the community. It was said that this strike had more of an effect on the Midlands region than the General Strike did a few years later, with its consequences being discussed in Parliament.

"To get any new play off the ground needs support from many quarters, and from the day the seeds were first planted earlier this year, myself, director Kerry Halford, and the cast, who, as a result of performing in the play, have formed 'The Wednesbury Town Hall Civic Players', have generously received help from the Black Country Bugle alongside Adrian Bailey MP, and local councillors Elaine Costigan, Olwen and Ian Jones, and Peter and Pam Hughes, plus local media including the Express and Star, Adrian Goldberg at BBC Radio WM, and vital links with Black Country Broadcasting and Bridge Radio.

"It is wonderful to be able to put on a play that commemorates the life and struggle of those fellow Wednesburyonians over 100 years ago and we would all like to think that they would have been proud of our efforts to record the important part they played in the industrial history of the Black Country."

Every aspect of the play was successful and underlined the hard work and commitment that every member of the production had made; from lighting, sound and scenery, to the musical arrangements, the singing and the acting prowess.

The storyline was heavily focused on the Connelly family, who suffered tragedy throughout, even at the end with victory in the strike. Isaac Connely (Billy Spakemon) was superb and held the family unit and the assembly of strikers together, with tremendous support from other family members Lizzie (Linda Whittaker), Fred (Aidan Cutler) and Tilly (Natalie Webster).

There was audience participation, especially near the end with everyone joining in singing All for Twenty Three Bob, a memorable evening that will go down in the annals of Wednesbury History.

At the end of the performance Adrian Bailey MP said how wonderful the experience had been, a proud day for Wednesbury, and paid tribute to everyone involved, and Brendan Hawthorne was able to announce that proceeds from the evening's entertainment had reached £950 and Councillor Elaine Costigan accepted the amount on behalf of the Mayor's charities.

Were you in the audience for Hard Graft and what did you think of the show? Were your ancestors among the striking Wednesburyonians? Contact jworkman@blackcountrybugle .co.uk

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