Theatre reviews: Yes! Yes! UCS! | Class Act 30th Anniversary

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic seven-month work-in by the workers of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, watching Yes! Yes! UCS! was a strange, moving, and sometimes troubling experience, writes Joyce McMillan

Janie Thomson as Aggy in Yes! Yes! UCS! PIC: Townsend Theatre Productions
Janie Thomson as Aggy in Yes! Yes! UCS! PIC: Townsend Theatre Productions

Yes! Yes! UCS! Golden Friendship Hall, Clydebank ****

Class Act 30th Anniversary, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

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The Golden Friendship Community Hall at Clydebank is barely a mile from where John Brown’s shipyard once stood, on a site now occupied by a soft play centre, and it was a strange, moving, and sometimes troubling experience to gather there on Saturday night, with a local audience, to cheer on Townsend Theatre Productions of Manchester’s latest touring show Yes! Yes! UCS.

The show celebrates the historic seven-month work-in by the workers of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders that ended 50 years ago this spring, when the Conservative government of the day reversed its 1971 decision to withdraw support from the yards, saving tens of thousands of jobs.

It was a temporary victory, of course. Yet it also represented a remarkable and imaginative fight-back, led by shop stewards Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, against the human implications of the free market ideology that was beginning to dominate British politics, and it is passionately commemorated in Neil Gore’s new play, which takes the form of a two-handed, two-hour narrative with songs, presented by two young women playing young female office workers in the yards, at the time of the work-in.

It’s a device that works well, in bringing closer to home the intense class-based politics of an age that can now seem distant, in its lack of concern for the politics of gender, race and identity that preoccupy us today. The narrative therefore focuses on the huge consciousness-raising impact of the strike on the two young women, superbly played and sung by young Scottish actors Janie Thomson and Heather Gourdie, and it’s backed by magnificent original animations and historic film footage – by Scarlett Rickard and Jonny Halifax – that constantly link their story to the wider political events of the time, attracting roars and groans of recognition from the audience.

The songs are a fine mix of contemporary political classics – including Alex Harvey’s Hammer Song and Jimmie Macgregor’s Pack Your Tools And Go – and new songs by Neil Gore and other contemporary writers, with musician Beth Porter. And the questions raised, in the end, are both pointed and poignant, about a moment in Scottish and UK history that could have marked a turning-point, in the fightback against the ideology of profit before people, but that finally failed to do so, with consequences that now seem to grow harsher by the year.

There was also an important anniversary at the Traverse this weekend for the theatre’s remarkable Class Act programme, founded in 1992, and still roaring on from strength to strength. Class Act is designed to encourage school students to write their own very short plays or scenes, which are then performed by professional actors, and its reach has been both Scotland-wide and international, with a remarkable history of projects in Russia and Ukraine, for example, which have a particular poignancy at the moment.

Class Act celebrated its birthday with an 80-minute blizzard of 24 scenes – a few on film, most live – written by students from five Edinburgh secondary schools, and brilliantly performed by an eight-strong company led by Class Act graduate Greg McHugh. The overall impression, though, was one of great satirical energy, huge vitality, and tremendous fun, and in these times, evenings in the theatre don’t come much better than that.

Yes! Yes! UCS! on UK tour until 1 May, with dates in Irvine, Dalbeattie, Glasgow, Rutherglen, Birnam and Edinburgh. Class Act 2022, run completed.

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