Two men, three generations apart, struggle to escape the labels that have been pinned to them.
1878. Slen McGuire has tramped all over England, taking any work he can get. He’s worked on farms, now he’s a navvy on the Deadwood Tunnel. Regarded by ‘civilised society’ as “an ungodly, reckless pack of rogues and rascals”, the navvies may be as hard and dangerous as their work; but many of them are also warm-hearted, witty and honourable. When people lose count of the number of men killed or injured on the works, what else is there for a man to do with his wages than gamble and drink? Then the 8 year-old-son of the woman Slen lodges with is killed in yet another tunnel accident. And Slen makes a decision which will change his life….
2008. Kevin McGuire has plenty of problems of his own. The pressures are bearing down on him from every direction. Steve, his closest friend is killed in a dreadful accident; Kevin is in prison for a minor drugs offence, though the police are preparing a far more serious case against him; his Mum thinks he’s a waster and his cell mate is threatening him. While researching his own family tree, as part of an education project, Kevin discovers that his great grandfather was Slen McGuire, and he unearths a family history which is initially as shocking as it is ultimately inspirational. He is forced to re-evaluate his own circumstances and think anew about his own future.
Stand or Fall was based on detailed historical and contemporary research.
Although the Deadwood Tunnel is fictional, all the incidents and characters in the play are based on documented incidents which took place during the building of the British railway system. The stories have, however, been adapted, conflated and fictionalised.
The play was also closely informed by a series of theatre workshops which took place in Winchester Prison in Autumn 2007, where prisoners explored possible relationships between family histories and personal identity and how peer pressure affects decision making.
The play is concerned with reclaiming one’s past, making new beginnings. During the workshops, one of the prisoners said that he hoped that the play would be ‘uplifting’. Hopefully, it is: the two central characters, Kevin and Slen McGuire, each succeeds, against all odds, in asserting his own integrity and discovering his own brand of courage in the face of brutalisation and exploitation.
An account of the development of the play and the production can be found in the essay Stage Fright or What’s so scary about dressing up?’ which was first published in The Journal for Drama in Education. Vol. 25, Issue 2. Summer 2009. A revised version of that article appears as a chapter in Playing for Time: Perspectives from the Prison. The original essay can be downloaded from the Essays and Articles page of this website.
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(Toby Farrow - Photographer)
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