A LITTLE over 100 years has passed since Mary Barbour inspired women across Glasgow to organise rent strikes during WWI, defying greedy landlords and bosses and winning their demands in the process.
It’s fitting that she should be remembered in this musical which tells their story honestly, humorously and with plenty of catchy songs and music which stay with you long after you’ve left.
Pitheid’s production of Rent Strike! opens with the city’s men caught up in the excitement of war, leaving their families, wives and children behind to run households alone without their source of income.
Landlords, taking advantage of the problems of overcrowding, demand rent increases despite the dilapidated state of the housing and the fact that the tenants can barely afford to eat, with many of their men off fighting in the war.
In scenes that are touching, warm and hilarious, the women come together in a great show of solidarity to organise against the increases.
They confront a landlord and send him and his henchmen scarpering when he tries to evict them.
While mostly focusing on the women, the play acknowledges the wider context, such as the growing opposition to what John Maclean described as an imperialist war in which young men were sent to the slaughter to benefit the capitalists, the growing women’s suffrage movement, James Connolly and the Home Rule question in Ireland and the importance of unified strike action in the factories, key in delivering a victory for the rent strikers.
Appropriately, the play is performed at the iconic Govanhill Baths, Glasgow’s last surviving Edwardian bathhouse, which has been taken over by the local community after the council threatened its closure.
It housed public baths, pools and a “steamie,” where women could wash clothes at a time when the tenements had no running water — a fitting place to have a play concerning the lives of ordinary people and particularly women during that period.
This is a musical that weaves the personal stories of the characters with the events of Red Clydeside in an accessible, engaging and educational way and it certainly merits further performances.