Pioneers in the Pit: A Review of Queens Of The Coal Age

Queens Of The Coal age is Maxine Peake’s exploration of the real life female force behind the anti-pit closure fight in Britain.

1993. 12 pits are closed following years of pit closures, years of unfed mouths, years of women seething by the kitchen sink, years of the fight against Thatcher. Four women band together and occupy the Parkside colliery as a call to arms. One clear message: take a stand.

I went into Queens Of The Coal Age knowing that Maxine Peake wrote the play, and vaguely knowing it had something to do with coal pits. The programme told me the rest: Peake spoke to the women against pit closures in a 2016 interview she conducted for her 45 minute radio play: Queens of The Coal Age.

After failed attempts from Dot (Jane Hazelgrove), Elaine (Eve Robertson), Lesley (Danielle Henry), and Anne (Kate Anthony) to protest the pit closures (which began in 1984) the woman banded together and occupied the Parkside colliery.

queens of the coal age
Left to Right: Lesley, Elaine, Dot, Anne

The women, disguised as teachers, are taken on a tour of the pit by the manager Des (played by John Elkington).

Elaine: ‘We actually did an official tour. To be honest, once we got down, we had no idea what to do next. And oh we were tired. I’d not slept all the night before.”

Des instructs the woman to get into the lift. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered how the director (Bryony Shanahan) would pull it off. Wracked with nerves, and Dot with claustrophobia, the women step onto the lift platform.

Gravitas should be given to Elliot Griggs (lighting designer), Pete Malkin (sound designer), and Jennifer Jackson (movement director) who managed to transport the women from centre stage at The Royal exchange to the bottom of a coal pit within seconds. If I had just stepped into the theatre and watched the scene unfold, I would have known what was happening.

Finally down in the pit, the women rejoice.

Annie: ‘I put my pit gear on and then we got to the cage, and as soon as it set off down I got hold of your hand and I said, “Elaine, we’ve cracked it.”‘

As it becomes clear the women will not be moved, Des disappears evaporating around the women’s laughter.

Arthur Skargills wife
Anne played by Kate Anthony

Justifiably, Anne is the leader. Wife to Arthur Scargill (President of the National Union of Mineworkers 1982-2002) she has the most to lose by rebelling publicly. For their first act of rebellion, the women tidy up the office they have taken as their home. After the paper flower is put into the vase there is not much else to do, except pick at each other.

What follows is four days of sleeping on the ground, fighting with the pit boss Ramsey (also played by John Elkington), and general exhaustion. Dot, Elaine, Anne, and Lesley go hours without food and water. The onlooker might wonder, why did they do it? Hidden in the depths of the mine, they do not know whether their rebellion has peaked public interest.

Peake’s interview gives us some answers.

The women’s motivation was as feminist as it was political.

Betty: ‘My ex had always told me that I was thick, and I was stupid, and it were no use explaining things to me because I wouldn’t understand. All of a sudden because of the strike- and we’d gone speaking all over – I suddenly realised I know as much as some of these people at university; in fact, I know a bit more I’m sure.’

Dot: ‘ […] if there’s something wrong, you try to fix it. It changed a lot of women – there were writers come out of it, poems, songs, there were all sorts come out of that strike – so we achieved something, even if we didn’t stop them closing the pits. Something was evolving, women were changing.’

Peake’s humour sparks like fire crackers in the darkness, illuminating the women and their stories. Elaine is often the butt of the joke, the other women finding fun in her knicker contraband and her lust for the coal darkened pit men…

Butt of the joke
Elaine played by Eve Robertson

She is the only childless rebel in the pit. She is apart from the others, and knows it. Peake frames the coal pit closure strikes as an assertion of women’s power, a renouncement of the ties that bind the ladies to their homes, and an assertion of it. Family and duty to the cause is linked so closely that they have to be separated, one has to come first. Dot found her family on the rally lines, and so she left her kids at home to rebel against the system. She is the first to want to leave. A bout of guilt overwhelms her, and she admits that she sometimes wishes she never had kids. The divide is too much.

Anne: ‘Dot said to me, “I’m tired, Anne, I’ve had enough.” And she says, “I’ll go out on my own,” and I says, “No you’re not. We’ve come down as four, we’re all going out as four.”‘

Peake’s writing for Queens of The Coal Age reminds me of a passage from The Ruins in which the main character lowers a lantern down a pit and watches as it illuminates the walls it passes, and then gets smaller and smaller until it hits the bottom and everything around it is flooded with light.

 

 

 

 

The Crucible: The Insanity of Crowd Mentality

Centered around the search for Witch’s in Salem, Miller’s play is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America

When testifying in front of the House of Un-American Activities in 1956, Miller said: ‘Anybody in this room might have thoughts of various kinds that could be prosecuted if they were carried into action, but that is an entirely different story.’

The Crucible (1953) is Arthur Miller’s version of the Salem witch trials in 1692, which ended with 19 women being executed for witch craft. The ICAT (Independent Centre for Actor Training) Manchester group performed the play in The Lowry at only £6 a ticket.

ICAT the crucible
The program

Miller’s vision is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America in the 1950’s. Fueled by senator Joseph McCarthy, who was so ardent an anti-communist that the growing feeling of dislike towards the Soviets was labelled ‘McCarthyism,’ the Red Scare originated in the belief that American spies gave Soviet’s the information they needed to produce successful nuclear tests in 1949.

ICAT uses a bare stage which emphasises the stark landscape of late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Throughout the whole play there are maybe five settings, each adorned with wooden boxes that function as walls, tables, and as the trial begins, seats for judge, jury, and executioner.

Every character is touched by religion in some way. Talk of the devil hangs heavy in the air. In each conversation his fearful name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. In Salem, the belief in mortal sin shapes the social fabric of the town, and influences the hysteria that pulses throughout the community.

crucible eyes

The play begins with Reverend Parris’ (Max Anderson’s) daughter Betty lying unconscious across the wooden boxes. One night ago the Reverend saw the village girls dancing in the woods and, upon jumping out of the bushes he had been hiding in, shocked his daughter so much that she passed out.

Conspiracy theories abound.

Parris is convinced that his niece Abigail Williams (Phoebe Fischer) has something to do with his daughter’s illness. Under the Reverend’s suspicious gaze, something as innocent as dancing turns into summoning the devil, much to Abigail’s denial. Anderson plays the pious clergyman perfectly: his stern expression and unwavering stature form the basis for the man who survives the play, firmly on the side of the uncompromising courts. Sanity appears in the form of farmer John Proctor (Vince Gray) and Reverend Hale (James Ainsworth), but this is short lived.

Hale warns Parris that he should not prescribe any supernatural reasoning to Betty’s unconscious state. Giles Corey (Guy Thompson) enters the scene, and the sanity ends there.

Satire runs throughout the play.

Corey is quick to claim he saw one of the girls flying over a barn the night they were dancing. As talk of witch craft abounds, Corey mentions that his wife reads books, something he will later regret as she is put on trial for witch craft.

The play centers around the one time affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. Gray plays a haunted man who wants to right his wrongs, and a man now wholly dedicated to his wife Elizabeth (Julie Hannan). In one tender scene he tells her: ‘I mean to please you, Elizabeth’. He spurns Abigail’s desire to continue their relationship, and in a fit of jealous rage Abigail accuses Elizabeth of doing the Devil’s work. The strands of plot weave together to form the image of a broken community, so fearful and intent on purifying their town that they accuse their neighbours without reason.

Mary Warren (Carly O’Hare) embodies the stress caused by this toxic society, and the desperate search for the truth. Caught between her master John Proctor who urges her to tell the truth and the lying, spiteful Abigail, Mary crumbles under the intense gaze of her suspicious peers. O’Hare fits the bill for a woman in distress: as Mary is pulled this way and that by John and Abigail, her agonised expression shows her torment.

Ethel and Julius

Mary brings to mind the Rosenbergs. Miller published his play in the year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Thought to have passed atomic secrets to Russia, Julius was arrested on July 17th, 1950. Ethel followed soon after. Shockingly, Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law (David and Ruth Greenglass) testified against the Rosenbergs to lessen their own sentence for the same crime.

Hours before their execution, Julius and Ethel penned a letter to their two young children. One section reads: ‘good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; (that) freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly.’

Nothing is won in Miller’s play. The struggling embers of truth die out along with John and Elizabeth. Friends are lost, lovers turn, and the corrupting force of isolated religious superstition ruins all in its path.

 

Lancaster University Presents: TWO

The LUTG take on Jim Cartwright’s slice of life Northern drama: Two

The Lancaster Unviersity Theatre Group (LUTG) has moved from strength to strength.

Their earlier production of David Greig’s Dunsinane was so impressive that I jumped at the chance to review Two, Jim Cartwright’s Northern drama. The play follows the lives of pub regulars over the course of an average day, or so the audience thinks. The date becomes significant later.

In Greig’s version two actors play the twelve characters that frequent the pub (hence the name), but the theatre group have adapted this so that four actors play the different characters. Clare Fletcher (Land Lady) and Adam Keenan (Land Lord) embody one character each, while Hannah Cooper and Jamie Lonsdale play various oddities.

The set is comprised of a bar and two bar stools which the locals of the pub sit on to perform their monologues. The audience is close to the action. The arrangement of chairs around tables instead of the traditional rows of seats is a great addition to the relaxed atmosphere of a pub. This placement allows various characters to weave in and out of the tables, speaking to the audience members. Lothario Moth (Jamie Lonsdale) points at several girls, exclaiming ‘You’re beautiful!’ before his girlfriend Maudie (Hannah Cooper) enters the pub.

Director Chad Bunney said that he included audience interaction because Greig’s version was made to be inclusive.

Lighting is used well. It functions much the same as a fade to black might in a television programme: as darkness descends upon the Land Lord, light is shone on the elderly woman (Hannah Cooper). As one monologue ends, another begins.

After the interval the easy going mood changes.

Roy and Leslie (also played by Lonsdale and Cooper) are far from the comical Moth and Maudie. As they sit down for a drink in the pub it becomes clear that she is not drinking. Or looking up. And barely speaking.

The pair play the couple well: Lonsdale is steely-eyed and commandeering, while Cooper is meek and malleable. I even saw her eyes shimmer. Their relationship is appalling because of how relentlessly realistic the scene is: Roy makes her ask to use the toilet. Roy tells her to never tell him no. And in the split second when Leslie looks up from her shoes Roy asks, ‘Who are you looking at?’

The Land Lady and Land Lord fight tooth and nail throughout. Their bickering is akin to Kat and Alfie in EastEnders. Cleverly, they are used to frame the narrative: the audience assumes that their story only stretches as far as having odd ball customers, when the opposite is true. The tension between the two reaches its peak in the last ten minutes when, as they lock up for the day, they are confronted by their shared past.

‘Do you know what day it is?’ the Land Lady asks.

The mystery is revealed, and what follows is an outpouring of tension and grief. Fletcher and Keenan convey their anxiety throughout the play by criticising each other, with added eye rolls and tuts. Their argument in the denouement is surprising: no longer the Land Lord and Land Lady stock characters, there is far more depth to these two than meets the eye.

With each different character the actors transform themselves on stage: there are stiff joints and dance moves and screaming fights. My only criticism is the sometimes wavering accent, which goes from adequate to excessive. As a whole, Two is another notch in the LUTG’s belt and an impressive directing debut from Chad Bunney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lancaster University Presents: Dunsinane

Dunsinane centers around the discovery that not only is Lady Macbeth still alive, but that she has a son

Dunsinane is David Greig’s take on the aftermath of Macbeth, and the LUTG’s (Lancaster University Theatre Group’s) performance is Gail Breslin’s take on Greig’s script.

Having killed Macbeth, Malcolm (William Evans) ascends the bloody steps to the throne only to discover that Lady Macbeth (Rose Briggs), called Gruach in this version, is still alive. Dunsinane centers around the discovery that Gruach has a fifteen year old son who is the rightful heir to the throne.

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.

Lady Macbeth

Gruach urges her son to flee to the safety of the woods as Siward (played by Josh Hawley) and his troops invade.

Instructed to secure Malcolm’s place on the throne, Siward mediates between the headstrong Gruach and the tyrannical Malcolm. Hawley plays the part of Siward with poise and control: he is a man focused on restoring peace, and this goal exudes out through words and his composure. The briefest flicker of an eyelid conveys Siward’s irritation, and these minute details are the first sign that there is an underlying anger to Siward, a brilliant foreshadowing on Hawley’s part.

Rose Brigg’s plays a convincing Gruach: her version of Lady Macbeth is headstrong and proud, and her anger is tangible in the moments where her son’s position as King is questioned:

The moon could rise at daytime and we could call it night.

The sun could rise at night time and we could call it day.

My son would still be king.

Tender moments abound.

Interspersed between acts of violence and scenes of bloodshed are pockets of realism in which soldiers one and two (Isaac Rolfe and Jordan Summerfield respectively) sit on a log in the forest and talk about nothing really, but this mindless chatter creates a sense of intimacy amidst the blood shed. Greig brings the audience swiftly back to the 11th century when, having arranged the bodies of his fallen comrades on the forest floor, Solder one frowns and says, ‘He looks pretty much the same as me.’

The Boy Soldier’s (Connor Gould’s) dramatic monologues are addressed to his mother, and are humorous while subtly hinting at the divide he experiences as an interloper in a strange land. At the beginning of the first scene the Boy Soldier exclaims, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this but Scotland is cold!’ and swiftly moves on to say that in the villages around the castle there is only ‘cold air and the eyes of women.’

Gould conveys the soldier’s hope and melancholy through an assortment of emotions and a booming voice that show he is destined for the stage.

As the second act commences the audience is faced with an abruptly changed Siward: far from the peacemaker he had previously shown himself to be, the Earl of Northumberland turns murderous, enraged by Gruach’s devious nature. All pretense of creating unity is replaced by Siward’s  attempt to eliminate the rightful heir to the throne: Gruach’s son.

The LUTG’s  production of Dunsinane is a triumph of precise casting and adherence to Grieg’s vision. At just £9 per ticket, the production is a bargain for any seasoned theater-goer who appreciates a passion for performance.