QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th September, 2018
This new play by Maxine Peake documents the true story of four members of Women Against Pit Closures and their occupation of Parkside Colliery in the 1990s. Peake’s writing clearly shows the influence of the late, great Victoria Wood with whom Peake worked in dinnerladies: the down-to-earth Northern humour, the bathetic domestic notes, and above all the warmth and humanity of people in adverse conditions.
Kate Anthony is Anne, determined and a bit scatty – it emerges she is the wife of a certain A. Scargill esq, and here the play offers insights into what life was like for his Mrs and their daughter. Anthony is superb, balancing Anne’s drive with her more humorous moments.
Jane Hazlegrove, formerly of Casualty, is great fun as the brash, earthy Dot, who suffers from claustrophobia – but that doesn’t stop her from descending thousands of feet below the ground. Joining Dot with the crasser remarks and brash observations is Danielle Henry as Lesley. This is a very funny play.
Special mention goes to Lucy Tuck, recruited only a couple of days ago to take over the role of Elaine due to the indisposition of the originally cast actor. Tuck comes on with a script but it’s mainly as a safety net; her performance is almost there as is the chemistry with the rest of the cast. Quite an achievement – give her to the end of the week and you won’t see the join!
Male roles are played by Conor Glean as sympathetic and easy-on-the-eye miner Michael – a scene in which he and the women share imaginary ecstasy pills is hilarious – and John Elkington gives us villainy-embodied in the form of pit manager Ramsey and also Des the tour guide, and James, a miner who seems to be from another era…
Miners past and present, played by an ensemble of community volunteers, haunt the stage during scene transitions, evoking the industry that has come and gone. Georgia Lowe’s design is a good fit for the arena set-up of the New Vic, where the darkness adds to the impression of being deep underground. The pounding, industrial house music used to cover changes is a refreshing change from the colliery brass bands we might expect!
Director Bryony Shanahan paces the humour effectively and brings out the personal-is-political aspects of Peake’s fine script. Peake raises issues, social and political, many of which have not been consigned to the past.
A highly entertaining and powerful piece that reminds us to stand up for what we believe, to protest those who ride roughshod over us, that it is the protest that matters, the being counted, rather than the result. If we’re going down, it’s better to go down fighting. A losing battle is still a battle although I’d like to think there is hope for success.