"Play mines rich comedic vein"
by Tim Mottershead for remotegoat on 08/07/18

“It’s On!” the quartet shout, a group of women posing as teachers from St. Cuthbert’s (or is it St. Catherine’s?!) Primary about to embark on the last educational trip at Parkside Colliery. Anne Scargill (Kate Anthony) wife of the NUM leader, borrows a pair of her husband’s reading glasses as part of her disguise, yet almost forgets she cannot use her real name!

This is the start of a theatrical experience which uses uproarious humour to relate a true and uplifting story. Indeed, who would have thought that such subject matter could mine such a rich vein of comedy (?) especially for those familiar with the ultimate consequences of the 1984-5 miner’s strike. Anne is joined by claustrophobic Dot (Jane Hazlegrove), flighty Lesley (Danielle Henry), and Elaine (Eve Robertson) perhaps the deepest of the four.

The play makes extensive use of a large ensemble (movement director Jennifer Jackson) to portray miners, and depict the danger and loneliness of the pit, and also to facilitate changes of scene. One example of the former occurs right at the start: the miners end their shift and vacate the lift, allowing the women to descend, and commence their ‘tour’. Once they had reached the bottom they reveal their true purpose: “We are Women Against Pit Closures and we’re occupying this pit”, much to the chagrin and irritation of tour guide Des (John Elkington, who proved equally excellent later, as both the pit manager, and an old miner). The set design (Georgia Lowe) lighting (Elliot Griggs) and sound design (Pete Malkin) all prove vital in depicting the coldness, dampness, isolation, and reek of the mine.

There are highly amusing scenes partly arising from the women’s apparent unpreparedness: had they considered food, sleep in cold temperatures, or even the perils of going to a subterranean toilet?! But in addition to japes, scrapes, and (sometimes coarse) humour, serious issues are explored, sometimes with great poetry. Elaine, for example, gives a passionate account of the ‘maleness’ and integrity of miners, worthy of D.H.Lawrence.

By the time part one ended, I felt overall that I had been amused and entertained, but that there had been certain points which had dragged slightly, and it had flashed through my mind as to whether this was going to have an increasingly negative impact in the second half. As I mulled this over during the interval, I wondered if, in fact, rather than being the fault of the material being too slight, rather was it that the medium of theatre was perhaps not the right vehicle? Would it have fared better in the medium of film, where scale, supporting cast, and location can easily widen the scope of the narrative, and provide distraction? ‘Made in Dagenham’, ‘Brassed Off’, and particularly ‘Pride’, in which the struggle of one group is taken up by another group as their own, sprang to mind.

However, I’m very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded, and the production was even stronger in the second half. In addition to a continuation of humorous set pieces there was a much more satisfying dramatic trajectory. This was due in large part to the greater role assigned to Michael (Conor Glean) who acted as intermediary between the women and pit manager. The exchanges between Michael and the quartet opened up a whole new dimension, thus deepening and broadening the scope of the play.

Direction for ‘Queens of the Coal Age’ is from Bryony Shanahan, assisted by Matt Hassall. It is written by Royal Exchange favourite Maxine Peake, recently seen on stage here in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ (also reviewed by me). It celebrates direct action, and reminds us that making a stand is not always about winning the battle, but is about standing up to be counted.

The production is enhanced not only by the usual handsomely printed programme, and but also by a display of artefacts and mementos, such as pamphlets, letters, brochures, and other original material from the time.

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