Life & Culture

Inside the new show exploding myths about Cable Street

We meet the writer of a musical about the famous day in 1936 when the people of the East End united to stop the fascists from marching


Power to the people: Joshua Ginsberg as Jewish boxer Sam (in striped jumper)

Although it has been 88 years since Jews and others took to the streets of the East End to block the march of Oswald Mosley’s fascists, the event that became known as the Battle of Cable Street continues to inspire art beyond the famous mural on the side of the street’s St George’s Town Hall. The latest is a new musical that takes its name from the narrow road that slices east from former site of the Royal Mint near the Tower of London to Limehouse.

Cable Street, which is currently previewing at Southwark Playhouse, focuses on three East End families — Jewish, Irish Catholic and English — whose lives are each affected by the rise of British fascism in different, sometimes conflicting ways.

“There is a young Jewish boxer, Sammy [played by Joshua Ginsburg in his stage debut]; Maired, a young Irish Catholic [Sha Dessy], who is also a member of the Communist Party; and Ron [Danny Colligan], a Lancashire lad who is relatively new to the area and doesn’t fit in terribly well,” explains Alex Kanefsky, who has written the story of the show.

“Ron can’t get any work and as he looks around he sees busy Jews and the Irish working on the docks but there is nothing for him,” continues the writer. “Then the British Union of Fascists turns up. To Ron they look pretty cool with their flashy uniforms, and the girls like them.” By coincidence, Ginsberg has a direct link to the fictional character he is playing in his first show. His great-grandfather Isidor Baum was one of those who fought at Cable Street. Isidor returned home bleeding heavily, though with the taste of victory as well as blood, having stopped the fascists from marching.

“My family connection to the battle is a little more tenuous,’ says Kanefsky. “My grandfather’s brother-in-law had been hit by a police truncheon, which changed his view of the police. And my grandmother on my mother’s side was born in Brick Lane. I have often found myself walking in her footsteps. But actually my interest in the story of Cable Street is from when I was doing some research for A-level history. The topic I chose was the Spanish Civil War and I discovered that many in the British volunteer battalions who went out to fight in Spain had previously fought fascists in the Battle of Cable Street.”

The show is directed by musical theatre specialist Adam Lenson, founder of the series of Signal concerts that showcase new musical writing. One of them featured a song about Cable Street by composer/lyricist Tim Gilvin just at the time Kanefsky was thinking about writing a show on the subject. The two writers were introduced, songs were written and eventually Gilvin and Kanefsky were commissioned to write the full-blown musical that is about to be given its world premiere.

News was hugely welcome for Kanefsky. Not only had Covid kiboshed his work, much of which was in schools introducing classical works to children, but he had been hit by a medical condition that made him largely housebound. “I became ill in 2021 with tonsillitis, which then developed into extreme migraines. It laid me out in bed for weeks. Then a year later I got the diagnosis of a spinal fluid leak, which means that I’ve kind of got to be horizontal most of the time otherwise I get into problems with my head, sparking migraines. Having the musical has been an incredible outlet because otherwise I think I’d be going loopy.”

Because of the condition, Kanefsky — a married father of two young children — has been kept in bed for long periods, so he has yet to see that other current show inspired by the battle of Cable Street, Tracy-Ann Oberman’s triumphant reworking of The Merchant of Venice, which this week transfers to the West End.

“Sitting upright and flashing lights and stuff are a bit of a trigger,” says Kanefsky casually about why he, a theatre writer, can’t go to the theatre. Without the help of his wife Elizabeth his show might not be happening. “I have to sing her praises,” says Kanefsky. “She is just an amazing person. She has gone in the last two years from being an equal partner in parenting to really being a parent of three.”

With his musical Kanefsky’s hope is to explode some of the “myths” surrounding the Battle of Cable Street. “The responses to British fascism in the 1930s were really complicated and diverse,” he explains.“The British Union of Fascists [BUF] at the time were the fastest-growing political party. At the time of Cable Street, the BUF was celebrating four years since they had been founded and this was Mosley’s way of saying, ‘We can’t be stopped.’

“What I also find so interesting is the different responses of the Jewish community. Some leaders very much thought,  let’s stay indoors, stay out of trouble [which was indeed the JC’s position] while the official line that was coming down from Whitehall and from the police was that there is a freedom of speech issue and people should be allowed to say what they want. That means being tolerant of intolerance. The myth of the Battle of Cable Street is also that there was fascism, people united and then it was over. But the reality is that in the weeks that followed, the fascists had a real upsurge in membership. So my take is also about what happens next? How did it affect those people who were there, and what did they do with that experience?”

Oberman’s Merchant — a call to arms against antisemitism — and Kanefsky’s musical are very different shows, of course. But they have in common the hope that diverse communities can come together in the face of racism, a lesson for now as much as then. Indeed the modern score in Cable Street is a deliberate attempt to make what happened in 1936 relevant today. After all, the East End is still the most politically charged area of London.

Yet the street politics that led to hundreds of thousands of Jews, dockers and other East Enders refusing to allow British fascists the right of passage feels very different now. Jewish radicalism has been replaced by an activism that sees Zionism and Israel as the new enemy. Many streets locally are festooned with Palestinian flags flying not just from the windows of private homes but lampposts. Walls are strewn with graffiti calling for Gaza to be free and Zionism to end.

“I agree there has always been street politics in this area,” says Kanefsky, himself an east Londoner who lives in Stratford. “The reason is that it has always been the home of immigrant communities. But street politics is by and large messy. Personally, I don’t feel offended or upset by by the signs on the streets. Politics is a messy business, and geopolitics even more so. I do understand people’s sensitivities and fears to some extent. But I’m fairly used to quite robust debate around this. That’s healthy and good. Tempers flare and I think what we want, as best we can, is to define where we can agree.”

Kanefsky hopes to see his show despite his condition. The various treatments he has tried so far have not had much success, he says. He has therefore put off the next treatment to give himself the best possible chance of seeing his musical.

“The next thing to try is a series of in-depth scans where they have to inject me with some dye and take various images to see if they can pinpoint where the leak might be. If they can, fantastic. They can then patch it up and it’s job done. But I’m under no illusions because the success rate is quite low. About one in five.”

Low odds, maybe. But then the chances of the East End beating the fascists on 4 October, 1936 were probably significantly lower. Perhaps there is hope in that.

Cable Street is at The Southwark Playhouse Borough until 16 March.

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