It must have been tough being Anne Scargill; married to the man they called ‘King Arthur’. I interviewed him once – in his office in Sheffield – where I found him kind, considerate and caring; despite having his children spat at in the street and threatened with having their throats slashed. Recounting that tale in ‘Queens Of The Coal Age’, actor Kate Anthony suddenly adds a motherly dimension to a woman who was as determined as her husband not to let the last deep mines die. She makes life even tougher for herself by orchestrating a sit-in.
Having died her hair ‘Midnight Rendezvous’ for the occasion, she and three friends pretend to be teachers visiting Parkside pit for educational purposes. They descend 2000 feet – but refuse to come up again.
Women Against Pit Closures organised two types of sit-ins in the 80s. Some climbed the winding gear to perch atop it in plain view shouting their protests to the cameras; as portrayed in a previous production at the New Vic called ‘Nice Girls’. Others occupied the coal face…where they could be neither seen or heard. They were out of sight – and thus out of mind. That was the trouble.
Maxine Peake’s play (first heard on Radio 4) concerns itself with the latter and she pretty soon writes herself into a corner. When the management leave the womem to their own devices, the conflict is gone and the play begins to run out of steam.
Luckily there is plenty of humour to entertain. Much of it is of the toilet variety – including the creation of the Anne Scargill Memorial Puddle and an absolutely brilliant gag about a real toilet. They also contemplate cannibalism and communism – and can’t quite resist the temptation to tidy up a little. After all, it is terribly dusty down there.
The comedy does tend to overshadow the politics. Plays about pit closures are not exactly rare – but there is some fresh thinking here as Peake’s characters point out that if their men don’t dig coal, how will they boil a kettle? And if they are laid off, how will they fulfil their manliness?
She also finds new serious seams to work at in the second half as she broadens her theme of prejudice to black immigrants and police brutality. The fires are re-stoked and the play – and the protest – picks up momentum. It’s just a case of who will crack first. And whilst the outcome is obvious, it’s also surprisingly whimpish.
The atmosphere is terrific throughout. Much of what light there is comes from the miners’ headlamps and the New Vic has somehow recreated that special ‘thick’ darkness only found down a coal mine. The supporting community actors make a major, moody contribution – flowing through the scene in varying timescales – and the soundtrack of raucous, pounding mechanical music is just perfect.
Director Bryony Shanahan is well served by an excellent cast who mercilessly mine the humour and expertly portray that unique bond that builds between woman with a common purpose.
But I must take my helmet off to Lucy Tuck who, less than 48 hours ago, didn’t know she was going to be in it. With almost as much bravado as the protestor she plays, she stepped in on Press Night, script in hand, to save the show; though there was scarcely enough light for her to read it.
This is a rough-hewn play with lots of laughs, a fair few home truths and a different take on one of the most testing times in our recent history.
Visit www.newvictheatre.org.uk for bookings & more information about New Vic Theatre
Photo : Andrew Billington