London's Unity Theatre was established in 1936 by the Rebel Players who, after many years of performing on street corners, on lorries and in community halls, converted a church hall in Britannia Street, London into a workers' theatre. The mainstay of the new theatre's artistic policy was the use of dramatic realism to educate, to encourage political action and to allow working class political and cultural expression. The name Unity Theatre was chosen to reflect this strategy. For over forty years, the theatre specialised in the portrayal of working class life from a left-wing perspective.
Unity's organisational structures were based on communist principles: a management committee, elected at an AGM by club members, had oversight of a network of sub-committees responsible for the different aspects of the organisation. In addition to its productions and drama workshops, the theatre offered training in other aspects of the entertainment industry to working class people from London's East End. Unity also provided a wide range of social activities, including lectures on politics and drama, summer schools, film shows, dances and a string quartet. Many of its members went on to work in the commercial theatre, film and television as performers, writers, producers, technicians, administrators and agents. Some Unitarians became well known, including Lionel Bart, Alfie Bass, Michael Gambon, Bob Hoskins and Bill Owen.
By 1937, the cramped Britannia Street theatre was seen as inhibiting the club's development and a lease was secured on a disused Methodist chapel in Goldington Street. Using the help volunteered by a wide range of London trades unionists, the conversion was completed in two months. The new theatre had a much larger stage than the typical little theatre of the time, a sophisticated lighting system and workshop and office accommodation. In addition to the increased facilities, the larger premises also provided a greater financial potential, including the ability to offer block bookings to affiliate organisations, making it possible to guarantee an income before a production opened.
The Goldington Street theatre had six full-time staff, four acting companies and the Unity Theatre Society boasted three hundred active members.
Another important highlight from the same era was the appearance of Paul Robeson in the Unity production of Plant in the Sun, an ensemble piece of social realist drama based on a strike in the shipping department of a New York sweet factory. In his book, 'The History of Unity Theatre', Colin Chambers explains that, although at the height of his fame, Robeson refused to be treated differently to the other members of the cast, who were expected to help with cleaning duties, and asked to be given a place on the sweeping rota. This request was discussed by the appropriate committee who, fearing that the dust would affect his unique voice, reluctantly voted to declined the great star's request.
In this period of its history, the members of Unity were also predominantly members of the Communist Party. Although the party did not fund the theatre, many of its branches both in the capital and nationally became affiliated and individual members were instrumental in persuading other organisations within the labour movement to affiliate.
When war was declared in September 1939, Unity, along with all other theatres, had to close its doors, but reopened later the same month with the revue Sandbag Follies. In the early years of the war, Unity Theatre members also worked with the air-raid shelter committees in the capital to organise a wide range of entertainment. Then in 1941, following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, the government reluctantly turned to Unity Theatre for help to provide the cultural material needed to celebrate their new ally. Unity rose to the challenge by producing, among other things, the 1942 revue Get Cracking, focusing on the need both to increase war production and to back the Soviet Union, and from 1942 onwards, Unity groups also performed in factories and to all sections of the armed forces.
In March 1946, Unity organised a conference entitled 'Theatre and the People', arguing for direct state funding for the theatre at all levels, and in the same period, the national membership increased significantly. By May 1947, there were 50 branches of the Unity Theatre Society and 10,000 members.
By the mid 1950s, competing political perspectives among the membership, together with the artistic disagreements that had always characterised the theatre's management style, became increasingly harmful and Unity Theatre was in severe financial difficulties. This situation was aggravated by the increasing popularity of naturalist drama, making both working class characters and themes widely acceptable in the commercial theatre. In addition, the new radical writers and producers working in television began to use the political and social topics that had traditionally been the domain of Unity Theatre as subjects for television drama. By contrast, Unity's repertoire remained unchanged. The theatre continued to present revues, plays, revivals of earlier work and also a number of classics.
Unity continued to perform challenging foreign dramas, particularly those associated with liberation struggles, and work by new writers, irrespective of the commercial risk this involved, were also produced. Unity's political commitment, coupled with its status as a theatre club, made it possible to stage works that had been banned by the censor. In 1952, for example, Unity staged Strangers in the Land. The play, by the new writer Mona Bland, had been banned from public performance by the British censor, because of its portrayal of the Malayan plantations at a time when Britain was fighting a jungle war against communist-led guerrillas. Unity's continuing political links also allowed the theatre to secure premieres of important work by left-wing authors.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the Goldington Street theatre was badly in need of repair. Unity launched an appeal to buy the freehold of the existing building, and there were also plans to build a new theatre. The appeal gained the backing of a large number of Unity's supporters, including Dame Sybil Thorndike and Joan Greenwood, and a number of fund raising events were organised. When enough money was eventually raised to purchase the freehold, it was celebrated by a show called It's Ours and the site was renovated, but the political conflict and financial uncertainty continued.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Unity Theatre became an important venue for the alternative theatre movement, including the groups Belt and Braces, 7:84 (England) and Rough Theatre. The new groups tended to have a broader political perspective that, in addition to class politics, encompassed gender, race and ecology.
The theatre's repertoire became a mixture of old and new. There was also a move to a more community-based approach. By the early 70s, the theatre was open to children from local adventure playgrounds over the Easter holidays, and some plays were staged that focused on the history of the locality. Other works covered contemporary political issues, and it was after the performance of a new play, The Cocoa Party, written by Unity activist Helena Stevens under the name of Ruth Dunlap Bartlett, that a fire broke out in the auditorium during the early hours of 8 November 1975. The building sustained serious damage, and over the following years, a number of attempts were made to raise the money to revive the under-insured theatre. One of the most significant was probably Socialist Theatre Groups for the Rebuilding of Unity (STGRU). The initiative failed, and after a number of battles by various competing groups concerned to guard Unity's interests, the site was eventually sold to the St Pancras Housing Association in 1988. Unity Theatre's legacy is now protected by the Unity Theatre Trust who, in addition to administrating a grant-award system for drama and related art forms, maintain the theatre's archive and have produced the DVD The Story of Unity Theatre that explains the theatre's history.
Manchester Unity Theatre, launched in 1944 by former members of the Manchester Theatre Union, was one of the first theatre groups to affiliate to the Unity Theatre Society. Between 1944 and 1965, the group was responsible for at least sixty-three productions and in excess of one hundred and three performances. The new theatre group's aim, reflected in its constitution, was to provide an alternative to the established theatre that would both entertain and also educate working people about the wider labour movement.
A proportion of Manchester Unity's repertoire focused on specific political issues. The group also performed works that explored the historical struggles of the labour movement.
As part of its role, Manchester Unity also provided material in response to the needs of a particular group or campaign. This was sometimes in the form of an existing play. In 1946, for example, a production of George Leeson's play This Trampled Earth was performed at the request of the International Brigade Association to raise funds for Spanish Republican prisoners interred in a prisoner of war camp near Chorley. The group also wrote work to be performed in support of particular campaigns and provided topical reviews for local party wards and for union branches.
Manchester Unity was also essentially a mobile theatre, performing on many occasions in a variety of venues outside the formal theatre. One early example of this was the arena production of the play According to Law, performed at King's Hall, Belle Vue in 1949 before a meeting attended by the singer and activist Paul Robeson and three thousand supporters.
Unlike the Unity Theatre groups in London, Glasgow and Merseyside, Manchester Unity did not have its own venue. The problem of raising funding for suitable premises was a matter of concern throughout the group's history, and many sites were considered, but the cost always proved to be prohibitive. One result of this was that Manchester Unity's public performances were subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office and local authority restrictions, unlike London Unity, who was able to shield its productions from these constraints by becoming a private theatre club. The lack of a permanent venue appears to have caused little problem in terms of censorship until the summer of 1953 when, in response to an appeal from The Committee for Clemency for the Rosenbergs, the group submitted a script to be performed at Cheetham Public Hall. Shortly before the planned performance, Manchester Unity secretary Ian Rattee was informed that the Lord Chamberlain's Office had refused to grant a license for the production. Initially, and contrary to the normal convention, no reasons were given for the refusal, no suggestions were made for alterations to make the script more acceptable and the original typescript was not returned. In response to the decision, a compilation of readings and poems, including Harold Horsfall's Poem for the Rosenbergs, were performed. When the Lord Chamberlain's office was pressed, their reason for refusal was a surprising one. A letter on 8 June 1953 explained that the decision was based on the fact that the play dealt with matters that were sub judice. When the issue was brought to the attention of the MP Sidney Silverman, his response suggests that the case is possibly unique. He wrote ‘I have never heard of a case where the doctrine of sub judice has been applied by a British Authority to a case in a foreign court.'
Ten years after its formation Manchester Unity had gained acceptance by the labour movement. The secretary's report for the year of 1956 records an increase in the numbers of individual and affiliate members and fourteen performances of five plays. However, a number of issues of the Manchester Unity Theatre Bulletin from this period record a series of difficulties, including the continuing problems caused by the lack of rehearsal facilities. By the end of 1960 a copy of the same newsletter notes that support from the trade union movement both nationally and locally was in decline. As a consequence, the group had produced little mobile work and audiences for its productions were below expectations. In contrast, the same issue also notes that Manchester Unity's production of Arthur Miller's play All My Sons at the Free Trade Hall was well received, and the group were confident enough to rent new rehearsal rooms. In an attempt to stimulate more interest, a decision was made to move away from what the June/July 1961 issue of The Bulletin refers to as the ‘sermonising' of ‘left-wing' drama. This change in focus was signalled by the production of the first two plays in The Wesker Trilogy. In fact, the 1963 Jubilee issue of The Bulletin reports that all three of Arnold Wesker's plays were performed in 1963 and also records the success of Albert Dobson's one act comedy Corky at the Wythenshawe Civic Week Drama Festival.
Over the same period the group's lack of rehearsal facilities were an ongoing concern. This difficulty, together with the continuing problem of falling audience numbers and the lack of requests for mobile work, may have contributed to the theatre group's eventual decline.
Significantly, in 1963, Unity Members Pam and Ian Rattee moved to Leeds, Yorkshire, and it is possible that the loss of two such key figures may have been the fatal blow. Over the years Ian and Pam Rattee, together with Joan and Vic Marshall, who also moved to Yorkshire in late 1959, had been pivotal members of Manchester Unity, taking on between them numerous creative and organisational roles. The archive suggests that the theatre group did continue for another two years and its final production was probably O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in March 1965.