The sold-out première of Rouse ye Women told the story of the chain-making women in the Black Country in 1910. The story of how the chain-makers’ strike led to the implementation of the minimum wage in Britain, is told through a cast of six female singers who use a dynamic mixture of scored music and choreographed movement. This hour-long performance at the Amstrong Hall was part of the Thornbury Arts Festival, given by new music theatre company And Then We Danced.

And Then We Danced
And Then We Danced

The music for the work was all scored for a metallic orchestra and vocals. These contrasting sounds both reflected on the two points of this social history. The women’s voices of the workers, in chorale-style melody, with a hint of Bulgarian folk, were juxtaposed against the cold, hard industrial feel of the metallic orchestra. The orchestra was constructed from a mixture of found objects made into instruments and traditional percussion that were incorporated into the props and the set design. Some of the instruments were mounted on to wooden crates, which were made to be authentically similar to those traditionally used by the chain-makers as their workstations. There were tuned scaffolding pipes, chisels and large metal rubbish bins amongst a glockenspiel, a metal grate, an anvil, hammers and many more. The diversity of sounds able to be created using these was fairly impressive and had clearly been though about carefully. There was even a pre-recorded anvil soundscape used on entering the hall, which had subtle elements of vocal music from the production inset into the music. This was rather like a subconscious overture, introducing the audience to the main themes of the music.

The production was set in eight musical sections, of which sections one and eight had a similar nature, and the overall feel of the production was that it finished how it started. The sections varied between huge percussive works with all six members of the cast playing and works that were smaller musically and more about movement. There was energy on the stage throughout each of the different dynamics, and though the historical relevance was clear, sometimes the production fell short of an emotional element, because the characters weren’t identifiable as individuals as such. Each of the six women were all in grey long-sleeved and full-length dresses, which despite having a contemporary feel whilst still suggesting costumes of the time, had a rather homogenous look under stage lights.

The musical highlight of this performance was a beautiful solo sung by Yasmin Frampton. Musical director Chris Harper composed this solo specifically for Frampton’s voice. Named The Anvil Makes No Sound, it is a vocal chorale about the anger and frustration of working as “the white slaves of England”. Lyrically simple, the piece uses the powerful high range and strong vibrato of Frampton’s voice to a moving effect. This creates a climax in the performance at the fifth musical section, roughly half-way through. It is one of the few times that a real emotional connection is made between the audience and singers. I would have liked a longer pause between this solo and the re-entry of the percussion to create a little more dramatic effect with the music and to allow for more empathy from the audience. In fact this would have been one of my main criticisms of the production: there was not enough use of silence within the score and performance, which at times made the plot confusing.

The scored percussion parts were musically demanding from the performers and it was clear at times that the performers had different strengths and weaknesses. This was perhaps why Frampton’s solo was so successful, because she was perfectly suited to it. Rather than each taking on singing, dance and movement, it may have been better for certain performers to solely play or sing instead of juggling all three, and hence focusing on their strengths as performers. There were moments in the percussion where it felt that some of the weaker instrumentalists were holding back the stronger ones by playing the rhythms slightly out. Still, there was fairly impressive amount of cross rhythms in the percussion score, learnt and played without sheet music. There was an air of Dame Evelyn Glennie’s performance from the Olympics opening ceremony of last year, and though Rouse Ye Women lacked the scale and immensity of Danny Boyle’s artistic direction, there was still a lot of stage presence.

Credit is certainly due to And Then We Danced and their directors for this performance, Victoria Bourne and Chris Harper, for an original interpretation of such an important moment in British history that has been forgotten by so many.