Royal Exchange, Manchester.
9 & 19 July 2018.
After a recent stint on the Royal Exchange’s main stage as a spinning Winnie in Sarah Frankcom’s production of Happy Days, Maxine Peake is back again, although this time as the writer of Queens of the Coal Age. Taking us deep underground, her play reimagines the true story of four women who occupied Newton-Le-Willows’ Parkside Colliery in 1993 in protest at its planned closure.
To begin with, things are a bit mission improbable at Parkside. “It’s on!” the women confirm, and the upbeat, purposeful music and bursts of activity give it the feel of a tale of derring-do. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”. There’s some slightly chaotic subterfuge as they pretend to be teachers on an educational visit to the pit, followed by a subterranean chase, and then later the threat of explosive knickers and worries about poison in a flask of tea. These colliery capers come with a large side of order of comedy. It’s the humour of “front and back bottoms”, loud farts and Coal Not Dole stickers gone astray in someone’s underwear. While some of the references to Don Estelle and The Clitheroe Kid will have younger audience members reaching for Google, it undoubtedly provokes much laughter.
The strong focus on cheerfully celebrating the women’s humour in the face of adversity risks overpowering both the other elements of their stories and an understanding of the movement they were part of. As an organisation, Women Against Pit Closures achieved so much. Many women were deeply politicised by the 1984 miners’ strike with the dispute having a profound affect on their lives. They stepped out of their traditional roles as miners’ wifes and mothers, to run soup kitchens, join picket lines and speak at public meetings. Some went on to become involved in other struggles or enter further education. In some cases, families were unsupportive and relationships fell apart. There are glimpses of this wider context in the words and lives of the Parkside protesters as depicted on stage but they mostly lack impact, often lost amid the hearty guffaws. These were women with fire in their bellies, but on emerging from the script’s cosy embrace, you’d be more inclined to reach for a Hobnob than take to the barricades.
Fortunately, director Bryony Shanahan digs deeper and uncovers, or perhaps adds, layers and subtleties. Shanahan uses a male ensemble to crowd the pit with miners at various points – spilling out of a pit cage after a shift underground or striding together across the stage united in song. Visually it’s a reminder that this was normally a place populated by men. These miners confidently fill the space and are at ease within it, it’s a stark contrast with the discomfort and disorientation the women feel within the now dark and deserted spaces. The four of them are not just trespassers on National Coal Board land but also women occupying a traditionally male space.
The miners’ fleeting appearances evoke a sense of a vanishing world, not just the decline of modern-day mining communities but also the loss of a shared history. Some are dressed as miners from different eras, and mingle ghost-like with their contemporary colleagues. These sequences are beautifully done. In one scene, while the women struggle to sleep they are silently joined by flat-capped men clutching old pit lamps as coal dust trickles from above like sand streaming through an hour-glass.
Whether deliberate or not, the theatre’s air conditioning makes for a realistically chilly time beneath the surface. With a glistening coal-black floor, strings of wire lamps and formations of solid metalwork flecked with flaking yellow paint, Georgia Lowe’s designs and Elliott Griggs’ lighting resourcefully create a place of darkness, dust and industry.
Although Peake’s script is sometimes in danger of portraying the women as characters with a capital C, Shanahan and the experienced cast work hard to overcome that. Danielle Henry as fun-loving Lesley and Eve Robertson as serious, uptight Elaine are especially good but the production excels in its moving portrayal of the affectionate camaraderie between the four women. Theo Nate brings a nice mix of laid back cheeky charm, and a touch of gaucheness, as young miner Michael (a role he stepped into at short notice). In one joyfully uplifting scene, he and the women pretend they are enjoying a drug-fulled night out on the town together, transported momentarily by the collective power of their imaginations.
Eventually the laughter starts to fade. The production goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of taking action, of standing up and being counted. As the women finally re-emerge from the pit in a blaze of glorious light, they are like triumphant prize-fighters. Though the play’s message is one of hope, their victory is bittersweet. Beneath them the miners lay down their helmets and boots as they clock off one last time.
Images by Keith Pattison