Cable Street review – the bar for original British musicals in 2024 has been set high

Tim Gilvin and Alex Kanefksy’s new musical about the historic 1936 clash in London’s East End runs at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 16 March

A scene from Cable Street at Southwark Playhouse Borough
A scene from Cable Street at Southwark Playhouse Borough, © Jane Hobson

It’s highly unusual for a brand new musical, especially one without a star name and not based on a familiar film property or collection of pre-existing songs, to have sold out its entire run even before the first preview, but that’s precisely what’s happened with this latest offering at Southwark Playhouse.

By the same token, it’s pretty rare for a new tuner to be in as great a shape for its world premiere as Alex Kanefsky and Tim Gilvin’s bold, beautiful creation turns out to be. This will come as scant comfort to those who failed to get tickets, but Cable Street really is an absolute belter of a show: a history lesson, a wake-up call, a celebration of the human spirit, and a thumping good story. The parallels between that troubled period and our own are inescapable, and the warnings echo urgently down the years.

The Battle of Cable Street, which took place in London’s East End in October 1936, saw the local community, predominantly comprised of Jews and Irish Catholics, join forces to rout Oswald Moseley’s infamous Black Shirts as they sought to march through Stepney. It was a red letter day for the multicultural Eastenders, giving off a clear message of defiance to the fascists seeking to sow division and fear amongst the population. In turning this bloody but magnificent real-life event into a musical, book writer Kanefsky has effectively given London its very own Les Misérables, dressing it up with a diverse, vivid bunch of characters, some domestic drama, a pinch of romantic intrigue, a sweeping sense of wonder and of history being played out. There’s even a modern framing device, with Debbie Chazen’s hard-bitten but charming New Yorker joining a walking tour of the area to try to discover more about her ancestral British roots, that sidesteps contrivance to become quite moving.

It’s tremendously ambitious, but the fact that it’s never confusing says much for the skill of director Adam Lenson, delivering career-best work here, as he displays a breathtaking mastery of the space – part playground, part battlefield, part industrial wasteland – while keeping plot strands dynamic and clear, and marshalling the cast with assurance and invention. On Southwark Borough Large’s open stage, scenes play out simultaneously, actors change characters in the blink of an eye by removing a pair of glasses and adding an armband or a headscarf or kippah, slogan-bearing leaflets tumble through the air, whole locations are conjured up by the moving around of furniture and an adjustment in Sam Waddington’s atmospheric lighting.

Lenson and Kanefsky even find pockets of rollicking warm humour amongst all the bombast and turmoil. The staging of the climactic battle is clear, thrilling and terrifying. If there’s a slight loss of focus following that sequence, the sag in tension and interest doesn’t last for long. This is theatrical storytelling of the highest order.

If a musical stands and falls by its score, then Cable Street would have been something to savour even if everything else wasn’t as fine as it is. Composer-lyricist Gilvin is best known for the currently touring Unfortunate musical, where his work displays a winning capacity for memorable tunes and inspired pastiche. Cable Street fulfils the promise of that delightful collection of songs and builds on it, but to describe this new score as mere pastiche is to undervalue it.

It’s an eclectic tapestry of musical styles – there’s rap, rock, Jewish hymns, a bit of Lionel Bart-style cockney knees-up, anthemic chorales, even a touch of calypso in a heartstoppingly lovely celebration song in the second half – that serves as an aural equivalent to the polyglot multiculturalism of a great working city. It’s immensely tuneful, soul-stirringly exciting at times and exquisitely tender at others, and the lyrics are concise and heartfelt. It’s also wittily inventive, such as in the comic quartet for newspaper vendors each personifying the rags they’re selling, so there’s a smug Daily Mail, a posh Times, an earnest Socialist Worker and a tense Jewish Chronicle, or a poppy, ridiculous number for the Black Shirts that recalls the electro-R’n’B Nazis that open act two of Operation Mincemeat.

A scene from Cable Street at Southwark Playhouse Borough
A scene from Cable Street at Southwark Playhouse Borough, © Jane Hobson

A terrific cast work tirelessly, vocally and physically, most playing countless roles. Such is their versatility and energy that you almost don’t notice that there are only eleven of them. Sha Dessi is a compelling rabble-rouser with poetic aspirations, charismatic and clarion voiced, and Joshua Ginsberg is deeply affecting as the mercurial Jewish youngster who understandably falls under her spell. Danny Colligan is powerful as a young Northerner who falls in with the Black Shirts when his attempts to find work and provide for his vulnerable mother (Sophia Ragavelas, wonderful) come to naught. The script doesn’t sugarcoat how the disenfranchised are easy prey for extremists but equally displays a heartening faith in ordinary people to fight for tolerance and the greater good.

Jade Johnson, Ethan Pascal Peters, Jez Unwin and Sarah Leatherbarrow register potently as family and community members, and Max Alexander Taylor and Aoife MacNamara are every bit as accomplished as actors and singers as they are as musicians. Each individual performance has nuance and commitment, and the singing consistently thrills the blood. Amazingly, Tamara Saringer’s band only has three members, albeit augmented by cast members, and sounds satisfyingly full. Every aspect of the production, from Yoav Segal’s evocative, corrugated iron and antique poster-bedecked set, to Lu Herbert’s shabby-chic, deceptively ingenious costumes and Jevan Howard-Jones’s contemporary choreography, feels part of a consistent vision.

No musical exists in a vacuum, and Cable Street is frequently reminiscent of other musicals: not just the aforementioned Les Mis and Operation Mincemeat, there are echos of Rent, In The Heights, Blood Brothers, even the current National smash hit just transferred to the West End, Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Crucially though, there’s not a single moment during the whole glorious thing where you find yourself wishing you were watching one of those other shows instead.

It’s an emotionally satisfying evening but it gets the blood pumping and the tears flowing not due to the plight of the individual characters, engaging as they are, but because it emphasises the importance of building a world where people of different races and creeds can live in harmony, and if that’s not a message for right now, then I don’t know what is. On an artistic level, the bar for original British musicals for 2024 has, as of now, been set very high indeed. Keep trying for returns, you won’t regret it.

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Cable Street

Closed: 16 March 2024