Pickets and Pigs
Customs House, South Shields
Review by Peter Lathan
The Miners' Strike of the eighties was a traumatic event for the North East, as it was for other coalfield areas. It divided and eventually destroyed communities and a whole way of life. It set family members against each other and friend against friend. It has left a legacy of bitterness and suspicion of central government and of the police which will take a long time to vanish.
Playwright Arthur McKenzie was part of it, as a police officer, and what he tries to do in Pickets and Pigs is show it as it was, without taking sides. Inevitably the play revolves around the experiences of a young police officer, Colin (sympathetically played by Neil Armstrong), and his family. He is from a mining family and at the beginning we see the easy relationship he has with the pickets. As passions rise we also see the effects on his family - 16 year old daughter Debbie (Alix McIvor) and wife Wendy (Crystal Millard) - and the knock-on effects on their relationships.
McKenzie treats both sides even-handedly, reserving his condemnation for those who manipulate the strike for their own ends: the rabble-rousing left-wing MP, the undercover Special Branch officer and the local TV executive. All the characters, McKenzie says, are based on real people with whom he came into contact during those months.
It's a powerful piece, which clearly struck a chord with the audience, but I do have issues with the structure. It was conceived as a kind of docu-drama for TV and it shows: the scenes are short, which necessitates a lot of moving of furniture on and off stage (which, I have to say, the cast manage with commendable speed and unobtrusiveness), but it does mean that the majority of characters are very much underdeveloped - some indeed are caricatures and others little more than bodies on the stage. There is little that the actors can do about it: what they can do, they do, but it's little enough.
And even those who have some depth are limited. Colin, for example, refuses to collude in the attempt by his senior officer to "wriggle" him (Colin, that is) out of trouble, but we are not quite sure why. There are numerous possible reasons - some stated; some just hinted at - but we are not sufficiently privy to his thoughts and feelings to be carried along in sympathy with him. Sorting out the "why" is an intellectual rather than an intuitive exercise.
Then there is the extremist MP, Libman. He suddenly appears out of nowhere: when we see him carrying out the actions that lead to Colin's crisis, we have no idea who he is, and we don't find out until after the fact. Up to that point he has been merely a face in the crowd: then he assumes huge importance.
And what of Robson, the leek-grower? It was a lovely performance from Dave Whitaker but the character was so divorced from the action that he seemed to have drifted in from a different play! I confess I felt that he was there for no other reason than that the playwright thought a little light comic relief was needed.
The fact that Pickets and Pigs is flawed as a play should not be allowed to detract from the achievement of director Chris Elphinstone and his cast. They made it come alive and the audience responded.