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King Cotton and Jimmy McGovern

Nicola Mostyn looks forward to a musical at the Lowry where brass band tunes and spirituals mix

Published on September 3rd 2007.

King Cotton and Jimmy McGovern

There are two epic stories at the heart of King Cotton, a new piece of theatre written by Jimmy McGovern which premieres at The Lowry on September 12.

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 slave trade and will be brought to life using the traditional spiritual music of that time.

Though these seem like two completely different worlds they were inextricably linked by the American Civil War and the union blockade of 1861 which restricted the import of cotton to the UK and devastated the lives of northern millworks.

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. This is where Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern came in.

This is the first piece of theatre McGovern has written for twenty years, 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 such gritty contemporary TV dramas as Cracker and Hillsborough, McGovern always champions 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 black 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, tellys, 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 is going to be an emotional, rousing experience. And, promising an epic story of contemporary resonance, taking in the American civil war and the Lancashire mills and backed by the evocative music of brass bands and American spirituals…well, you aren’t likely to see another play quite like it this year.

The Lowry (Pier 8, Salford Quays. 0870 787 5780 www.thelowry.com). £16 to £25. Wed Sep 12 to Sat Sep 22

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