Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, Coatbridge

Mary Brennan, four stars

THE dictionary offers various meanings for the word ‘shift’: Simon Sharkey’s large-scale community production – staged onsite at Summerlee by the National Theatre of Scotland – embraces several of them in strikingly epic style. The result is an impassioned pageant about change. An episodic look back at North Lanarkshire’s history that marks how, across time, our attitudes to work have shifted as the nature of available work has also altered from bygone labouring on the land, through an industrial revolution, to the 21st century when new technologies have rewritten the possibilities for employment and leisure alike.

It’s a massive canvas to compress into 75 minutes, but Sharkey and his creative team have been structuring its content since last autumn. Hundreds of local people – all ages, all backgrounds – have contributed to the text that now links together the vivid images that encircle us on vast screens. Dozens of them – led by four professional actors, everyone in grey work clothes – now mill around us as darkness falls. A bitter wind bites – and it’s almost almost symbolic – as they energetically re-enact significant moments from a past when Summerlee thrummed with the hard graft of coal-mining, iron smelting, steel-making – the stuff that built the British Empire but took a heavy toll on its work force. There’s something uncanny, affecting, at hearing so many young voices echoing those long ago calls for fair pay, better conditions, employment rights, on land that once witnessed such struggles and even now – in its museum – harbours ghosts of those who ‘clocked in, punched out’ on every shift.

The politics of social change weave through Sharkey’s concept, along with the voices of those who’ve lived through Summerlee’s cycles of change – the Museum’s inscription, “The past we inherit, the future we build” is well served by Shift.