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Two epic stories, one common thread

Nicola Mostyn looks forward to Jimmy McGovern's first theatre work in 20 years, where brass band tunes and spirituals mix

Published on September 3rd 2007.

Two epic stories, one common thread

There are two epic stories with one common thread at the heart of King Cotton, Jimmy McGovern's first theatre piece in 20 years.

The first is based around the Lancashire cotton industry and the cotton famine of the 1860s, and will be set to a backdrop of brass band music. The second concerns the transatlantic slave trade and the plantations of the Deep South, with the defiant pulse of the African drum resonant.

Cotton weaves these two completely different worlds together. The American Civil War and the union blockade of 1861 restricted the import of cotton to the UK, devastating the lives of northern mill workers.

Writer Ian Brownbill came up with the idea of a story in which these two worlds collide, but needed some help to get the play off the ground. He cornered Jimmy McGovern in a Kensington pub, and things started happening.

This is the first piece of theatre McGovern has written for decades, and it seems he was practically browbeaten into the job by the enthusiasm and persistence of Brownbill.

“I was too busy”, says McGovern of his initial reaction to the proposition. “I had other things on. But I tried to get Ian to approach other writers, which he did, but they either weren’t interested or they were too busy and eventually I got sucked in. I wrote a scene to show Ian how you do it and…I was in, then.”

Despite this seeming like a strange vehicle for the writer of gritty contemporary TV dramas as Cracker and Hillsborough, McGovern is a champion of the underdog and, despite its setting, this tale of two men from very different worlds – Tom, a poor mill worker from the North West and Sokoto, a slave from an American cotton plantation – is ultimately a familiar story of “small people, often caught up in extraordinary circumstances…trying to gain some control over their lives and fighting back.”

McGovern also believes that despite being set in the 18th century, the show and its themes are still relevant to modern audiences due to our own century’s “virtual slaves”.

“Our shoes, tellies, mobile phones. They are all produced at slave labour rates by Indian and Chinese workers. It is still going on today, and I think we should have a conscience about that.”

If the brass band music at the preview of this play was anything to go by, King Cotton, directed by another Liverpool hero, Jude Kelly, is going to be an emotional, rousing experience. You aren’t likely to see another play quite like it this year.

King Cotton: The Lowry, Salford Quays. Wed Sept 12 to Sat Sept 22. Liverpool Empire: Tuesday Sept 25 -Sat Sept 29.

See Jimmy McGovern's full interview here.

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