We Are The Lions Mr Manager is the poignant, funny and heartfelt the true story of Jayaben Desai, hero of the Grunwick strike in the 70s.
Freshly arrived in England after leaving the newly-independent Tanzania and a childhood growing up in Gujarat in India, England is not what Mrs Desai expected; from the houses to the weather to the discrimination felt by South Asians trying to find employment. She begins working in the Grunwick Film Processing Factory, where the manager is a bully and overtime is mandatory – after all, you signed the contact, the workers are told.
One day, Mrs Desai has enough of the treatment and confronts the manager with a firework of a line; “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager.” And with that she promptly resigns, and starts what was to become one of the longest and most important industrial disputes in British history.
The play’s writer Neil Gore plays a rollercoaster of characters with mechanical precision, from the floor manager; to the owner of the factory; police officer; and Brent Trades Council and member of the Grunwick strike committee, Jack Dromey – who got a cheer from residents of the nearby constituency where Dromey is now sitting MP. It would be easy for a less capable actor to confuse the audience by playing multiple roles, often with little difference in costume, but Gore pulls this off superbly. Medhavi Patel as Jayaben Desai is stunning, able to captivate the audience with her presence and show the vulnerability and courage of this larger-than-life character.
What could easily be considered to be a dry subject is countered by director Louise Townsend’s relaxed style, which allows the actors to break the fourth wall, joking about immersive theatre, and at one point asking the audience to join them on stage to form part of the picket line. It’s also surprisingly funny at times, with several of Gore’s character having an air of the pantomime villain and the quick wit of Mrs Desai’s comebacks. Audience participation, which is often painful, is well received and by the end of the play a good number of the crowd is joining in.
Ultimately the strike fails to fulfil the desire of Mrs Desai to see a union created at Grunwick, but the play finishes with a note of hope, of solidarity. And if that isn’t a fine way to spend a drizzly Monday night, I’m not sure what is.
Townsend Productions are touring We Are The Lions Mr Manager. To find out where they’re going next, check out: http://www.townsendproductions.org.uk/shows/we-are-the-lions-mr-manager