“Cable Street” at Southwark Playhouse Borough

Mark Shenton in south London
28 February 2024

With the ever-alarming rise of the threats of fascism and antisemitism around the world, from Trump’s America to the Middle East, it’s salutary to be reminded that those poisonous and pernicious movements have also struck far closer to home.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Jane Hobson.


By interesting coincidence, two theatre shows that both draw on the Battle of Cable Street, a violent 1936 protest against a march through the East End of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, are now playing simultaneously in London. Brigid Larmour’s touring production of The Merchant of Venice 1936, starring Tracy-Ann Oberman as Shylock, has arrived at the West End’s Criterion Theatre; while Adam Lenson’s ambitious world premiere production of Tim Gilvin and Alex Kanefsky’s musical, simply entitled Cable Street, has opened across the river at Southwark Playhouse.

The entire run of the latter was sold out ahead of its opening, so reviews are redundant, at least as marketing tools. But I hope that, like Operation Mincemeat that transferred to the West End last year after two development runs at Southwark, this show’s creators use the time and reviews to iron out some of the clumsy and jarring changes of earnest tone that their show too often succumbs to.

There’s no doubting the sincerity or integrity of their efforts to bring this landmark, inspiring story to theatrical life. But the execution is currently all over the place, with a score that ranges from classic music hall flavours (echoing East Ender Jewish composer Lionel Bart) to big bombastic Broadway belters and contemporary rap (there are inevitable shades of Hamilton). There’s nothing wrong with being eclectic, of course, but the show never establishes a strong enough voice of its own to make it memorable in its own right and not sound like a pastiche or tribute to other shows.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Jane Hobson.


Like Broadway’s short-lived Paradise Square in 2022, which told the story of New York draft riots during the American Civil War of the 1860s that pitted Irish Americans against black Americans, this show attempts to paint a kaleidoscopic portrait of different strands of a community’s life, in this case local Jewry and Irish immigrants who come together to fight a common threat.

The book is full of broad brushstrokes, too – there are lots of shouted slogans and repeated tugs of emotion. Not enough of it feels truly earned.

But a constantly busy 11-strong cast – some playing multiple roles and a couple doubling up as musicians as well, to supplement Tamara Saringer’s tiny three-piece band – bring plenty of varied colour to what’s there. Established West End talents as Debbie Chazen, Jez Unwin, Sophia Ragavelas, and Danny Colligan work alongside newer and impressive theatrical arrivals like Sha Dessi, Joshua Ginsberg, and Max Alexander Taylor (previously seen at Southwark in Benjamin Scheuer’s solo show The Lion) to animate a teeming stage. The perfunctory design is by Yoav Segal.

There’s the makings of a powerful musical here. But it needs another draft, or three, to fully emerge with its own voice, instead of ones co-opted from elsewhere.