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Musical of matchgirls’ fight strikes a light in dark times

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Issue 2453
‘Our fight is your fight’—matchgirls bring the solidarity onto the stage
‘Our fight is your fight’—matchgirls bring the solidarity onto the stage

Where did you get the idea for doing a musical about the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888?

We originally got the idea after a fundraiser at the Govanhill Baths in Glasgow, where the play will open on 19 May. 

That’s significant in itself, as the there was a big battle to keep it open in 2001. 

What does the musical focus on? 

Match bosses Bryant and May tried to get their workers to sign a letter denouncing a newspaper article by women’s rights campaigner Annie Besant. Her article attacked the appalling working conditions. 

That’s what sparked the walkout, and we’ve got that in the musical. 

The main characters are two young matchgirls, Kathleen and her next door neighbour Mary. 

Mary is a bit more experienced, but Kathleen hasn’t been politically involved before. 

Kathleen’s father is opposed to the walkout in the beginning, but is won around. 

But her brother Tom is very supportive. He’s a docker, who’s just become involved in socialist politics through the unions. 

It’s a mixture of a musical and a play. So how did you structure it? 

We wanted to keep the musical element within the play, but still wanted to draw out the politics. 

That’s why we structured it as a “play within a play”, set in a dance hall. 

To make it all fit together we decided to add another character, Burlington Bertie,  to narrate the story.

What sort of songs have you used in the musical and how did you choose them?

We’ve used a combination of old songs from the period and new songs that we specifically wrote for the musical.

We’ve also used It’s The Same The Whole World Over, which is already quite a political song, but we rewrote the lyrics to attack the bosses more. 

Do you think the story of the Matchgirls’ Strike is relevant today? 

Many of the matchgirls were actually migrant workers from Ireland. 

Bryant and May tried to blame migrant workers and pit workers against each other.

They use all the same divide and rule tactics that politicians and bosses are using now. 

The way the bosses are presented is also relevant. 

We explicitly portray Bryant and May as fat cats—and make them look very feline.

Women workers are still not paid as much as men today. 

So it’s also important to tell the story of the first successful strike by women workers in Britain. 

Has this fed into much of an atmosphere around it?

Yes, definitely. We’ve already given 25 tickets away to the Unison union homelessness strikers. 

But there’s also been a lot of interest after people found out how it resonates with what’s going on today.

And the musical also shows how people can fight back against it. 

Striking a Light 
Written by Fatima Uygun, Colin Poole and Jim Monaghan 
Govanhill Baths, Glasgow G42 7RA
Until 23 May 

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