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Review: Cable Street (Southwark Playhouse Borough)

Review by Rosie Holmes




New musical Cable Street has clearly captured the capital’s attention as even before press night this new musical had sold out its run (don’t worry though there are still opportunities for returns!). Interestingly, it opens just two weeks after The Merchant of Venice 1936 starring Tracy Ann-Oberman opened in the West End, both shows set in the same year and exploring themes of intolerance and political radicalisation, centred around the 1936 march of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts.  Cable Street is incredibly enlightening about the history of the Cable Street Battle but also brings humanity to all the Eastenders who joined together to oppose fascism within their streets.


The piece is, unsurprisingly, centred around The Battle of Cable Street. In 1936, Oswald Moseley’s British Union sought to march through London’s East End but, despite being supported by the media and the press, were met with fierce opposition from the local community. The Jewish and Irish communities joined together, alongside trade unionists, communist and socialist groups to prevent them passing, even employing tactics such as throwing marbles across the street. The day was a huge success for the community, with celebrations breaking out across the East End. In fact, its legacy was felt so strongly that it led to the public order act of 1937 which banned the wearing of political uniforms in public.

Tim Gilvin and Alex Kanefsky’s musical uses a modern-day walking tour to frame the story, as tourists explore the East End, an American visitor joins the tour looking to find the home of her mother. At first, I was worried this framing device could be a bit glib and predictable, however it works well to remind us of the history our streets hold and only adds to the story’s poignancy. As we travel back in time, we meet Mairaid Kenny, played by Sha Dessi, a young woman who balances her political beliefs as part of the local communist group with her work in a bakery and domestic duties. Dessi drives the performance forward with glorious vocals, and a character who displays fervent determination mixed with just a little of the naivety of youth.


Her love interest, not that this story should be labelled as romance, is Sammy Scheinberg, a young Jewish man, played by Joshua Ginsberg. A kind of Jewish Alexander Hamilton, he appears rapping throughout the piece, with remarkably high energy. Although some of the rhymes don’t quite pack the punch they could, his cheeky chappy performance brims with enough charisma that this doesn’t really matter, and ultimately this energy results in an even more emotive climax, as we see his character lose some if this happy-go-lucky exterior. Danny Colligan is Ron Williams, who is, unlike the aforementioned characters, romanced by the Blackshirts as he becomes even more disenfranchised due to lack of work and a dependent mum. His vocals soar, and his character adds to the audience’s understanding of how political extremists are able to prey on the vulnerable.

The company also features an extremely hard-working ensemble, with them all playing multiple characters, sometimes even in the same scene. Debbie Chazen plays an American tourist, Jewish Eastender, policeman and so many more, and all rather convincingly. Jade Johnson similarly transforms from Blackshirt to part of a Jewish family, among others. This may seem like a lot, and given the cast often swap characters without even leaving the stage, it has the potential to be rather confusing. It is therefore a testament to the performances on show and the writing that the story presented is not only easy to follow but highly impactful. Potentially a few less characters could have heightened the impact of the ones remaining, but what this show really does successfully is build up a rich portrait of the East End in the 1930s and the feel of community which is integral to this story.


It's clear the score draws upon influences from across the spectrum, and whilst I am often unwilling to draw comparisons, it seems near on impossible to not mention noticeable similarities or influences between this show and others. A thread of rhyme and rapping runs through the piece, reminiscent of Hamilton, and there are some tongue-in cheek comedic songs aimed towards the UK press that wouldn’t seem out of place in another new British musical, Operation Mincemeat. Standout song ‘No Pasarán,’ a soaring anthem, excellently performed by Sophia Ragavelas, closes the first act and had me humming the tune throughout the interval and as I woke up this morning. As a call to action and a symbol of solidarity against intolerance it serves to create a scene reminiscent of Les Miserables.

Despite being set in challenging times, this show is not without humour. After all, this is a piece about people, and so there is plenty of heart and humanity within the writing. Do watch out for my favourite line of the show, in a Jaws-esque moment Debbie Chazen as an anti-fascist shoult, ‘We are going to need a bigger rolling pin!’ However, though this show does plenty to explore a potentially lesser-known part of English history, giving humanity to all of the characters, I do feel perhaps presenting the Blackshirts in a mostly comical way, even giving them a disco dance number, negates the danger they presented to society in an extremely challenging time.


Direction is cleverly handled by Adam Lenson, and this show is fast paced and, despite the many character swaps, handling of props and navigating the small space, the show runs seamlessly. Set design is pretty simple, but the cramped set successfully creates a feeling of claustrophobia in which we can really feel the pressures of the interwar years and the crowded East End. Whilst set designer Yoav Segal makes the most of the space, it makes me super excited about what could be done with the set design on a larger scale, as there are plenty of opportunities to create some rather powerful scenes.

 By all means, Cable Street is already a successful new musical on ticket sales alone, however it is clear its real success is actually a product of the wonderful story of unity it tells. Particularly powerful in times where our own political futures are uncertain, it educates, entertains, and does not shy away from powerful topics. As I left the theatre, I was faced with the front pages of many discarded Evening Standards which read ‘Don’t let hate win’ and ultimately, this is what this musical is about, the story of unity against intolerance in challenging times. I hope this is not the last we see this musical, and given the popularity of this run, I am sure it won’t be.


Cable Street plays at Southwark Playhouse until 16th March 2024, more information is available here - Cable Street - Southwark Playhouse


Photos by Jane Hobson


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