Cable Street: a slice of British history gets the Hamilton treatment

Cable Street
Cable Street - Jane Hobson

Oswald Mosley and musical theatre may seem like unlikely bedfellows but that’s exactly what’s on offer at Southwark Playhouse with this new musical from Alex Kanefsky and composer Tim Gilvin. Cable Street dramatises the events of October 4 1936 when Irish dockers, Jews, communists and other working class people banded together in resistance to Mosley’s British Union of Fascists’ march through London’s East End. It’s a timeless play but one that feels particularly resonant now amidst the upsurge of anti-Semitism following the October 7 Hamas attacks.

The musical begins framed as a present-day guided tour of Cable Street then cracks on with demonstrating why a musical take on such weighty history isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. Call it the Hamilton effect. Songs easily carry what would have been unnatural exposition in dialogue and done well, as they mostly are here, deftly sketch in the characters while simultaneously giving the audience a potted history of the conflict, further contextualised internationally. (The crowds resisting Mosley shout the Spanish Civil War slogan “No pasarán” - they shall not pass.)

Focusing on three young people and their families, the play drops the audience into the thick of the brewing trouble. Mairaid (Sha Dessi), Irish Catholic and a passionate communist, works in a Jewish bakery and thinks “a dictatorship of the proletariat” defines equality. Her neighbour – and later love interest – Sammy Scheinberg (Joshua Ginsberg) is a Jewish boxer who can’t land a job. It’s a predicament that also afflicts Ron, a disenfranchised northern lad who is new to the area, doesn’t fit in well and falls in with Mosley’s Blackshirts.

There’s much more music than dialogue and the live band belts out Irish jigs, pop, punk, music hall and klezmer inflected rap in propulsive rhythms that occasionally feel uncomfortably cranked up to ten. This works well sometimes. The actors portraying perspectives from the Daily Mail, the Times, the Jewish Chronicle and the Daily Worker rinse every bit of enjoyment in pitch perfect accents and gestures representative of those publications. However, a ballad which softened Sha Dessi’s gutsy contralto into stirring lyricism was a welcome respite from the somewhat shouty delivery of the more high energy numbers. It made me long for more light and shade in the music.

The cast of Cable Street
The cast of Cable Street - Jane Hobson

Mosley’s introductory anthem was inspired by the question “what if the BUF were a 90s boyband?” Gilvin and director Adam Lenson may have been mindful of not glamorising Mosley but the song’s melody and choreography had a more comic and ironic effect than perhaps intended because it reminded me of the Village People.

This musical is a labour of love for some of the cast and crew whose ancestors fought in the Battle of Cable Street. It’s lamentable that this affecting theatrical piece reflects the persistence of hateful attitudes that have shaped their lives.

Until March 16;