Jimmy Cottons on to a Winner; Little Star ... Flora Spencer-Longhurst in the Member of the Wedding Eloquent Anguish ... Emma Jay Thomas in Jimmy McGovern's King Cotton
Byline: Georgina Brown
Should there be a referendum for the most stirring and soulful sound onthis Earth, I'd be hard-pushed to choose between the mournful might of a brassband from the industrial North in full flow and a choir singing spirituals loudenough to be heard in Heaven.
Which easily explains the seductive power of King Cotton, a big, bold piece ofmusical theatre that binds both sounds in a story drawing parallels between theexploitation of slaves in the cotton fields of Alabama and that of workers inthe cotton mills of Lancashire. Very occasionally, the two different strainsseem in competition for supremacy, but for the most part there's a rich andvibrant harmony of purpose.
The legendary Liverpudlian champion of the working classes and defender of theunderdog, Jimmy McGovern has been so busy writing for Brookside, Cracker,Hillsborough, Docker, Sunday and masses else that this is his first play for 20years. It will surprise none of his fans that the themes are injustice anddisempowerment.
Tales of two poverty-stricken couples on different sides of the world cometogether in a climactic fight on a ship. A former slave on the run sees areflection of himself in the frightened eyes of a cotton-mill worker who hasbecome a pirate in an attempt to liberate the cotton blockaded by AbrahamLincoln. That blockade starved the South into submission but also starvedBritish mills of cotton and their workers of wages and, therefore, of food.
It's a great idea, strikingly well staged by Jude Kelly's production on aspectacular scale. A rust-coloured set evokes both the satanic mills ofManchester and the earth of the American South, where slaves are treated asbeasts of burden. A vast mobile metal frame powerfully suggests the rigging ofa pirate ship.
In one of many deft transformations the mattress of a marriage bed inLancashire is stripped to reveal a cart carrying cotton stained with the bloodof a murdered slave. 'There's always blood on cotton. Normally you won't seeit,' says a mill worker, and I suspect McGovern intends to remind us of thesweatshops in China and India where desperate workers are paid a shamefulpittance. …