Close the Coalhouse Door
By Alan Plater, based on stories by Sid Chaplin, with additional material by Lee Hall. Songs by Alex Glasgow
A Northern Stage/Live Theatre production
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
I confess to having had some major reservations when I heard that Northern Stage and Live Theatre were proposing to revive Close the Coalhouse Door. Don't get me wrong: it was not because I don't like the play. In fact, quite the opposite. I should, I suppose, declare an interest here—I have played in it twice and directed it once, although that was more than thirty years ago.
And there, for me, was the rub: in many ways it's a period piece, a bit of history. There's no Northumberland and Durham coal industry any more. In fact, there's scarcely any British coal industry.
However, we were told, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters) would be providing additional material to bring it up to date and, thinking rather too literally, I imagined new scenes which would cover events like the Miners' Strike of 1984 and I just could not see how that would fit in with the piece as it was written by Alan Plater.
Oh ye of little faith! Hall's updating is sensitive and really quite subtle in that it is integrated into the original, fitting well with the setting of the golden wedding celebrations of Thomas and Mary in 1968.
One of the major changes is in the opening. Dominating the shadowed set of a boarded up house front towered over by a pit wheel (nice design by Soutra Gilmour) is a large poster advertising Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, cleverly used in the new opening scene which segues into Plater's play. A nice idea which is both funny and evocative, especially in the North East where the Miners' Strike is still a raw open wound and Thatcher is intensely hated.
So, what of this production?
The play is as good as I remember it, with moments of intense pathos amid all the humour. The most intensely emotional moments are when Plater allows Sid Chaplin's words to speak for themselves, as, for example, when Thomas speaks the final paragraph of the short story The Thin Seam where the image conjured up by the last sentence needs no "performance" to make a huge impact. Although it has to be said that the song Twenty Long Weeks takes some beating for emotional power.
Under the direction of Samuel West, the cast of nine actor/musicians are a great ensemble, as they swap from scenes at the party to historical re-enactment or perform Alex Glasgow's often wickedly funny but hard-hitting songs.
Close the Coalhouse Door is an iconic play in North East theatre, having the same kind of impact and lasting effect as, for example, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil did on Scottish theatre. And it retains its power, as the enthusiastic reaction of the packed audience on press night (which I shared) showed. It is, I'm told, almost sold out for the rest of the Newcastle run but it will return to the region, playing at the Gala in Durham, from 12th to 16th June so if you can't get a ticket for Northern Stage, book now for the Gala.
Closing in Newcastle on 5th May, "Close the Coalhouse Door" then tours to Richmond, Salford, Huddersfield, Guildford, Durham, Oxford and York, where the tour ends on 30th June.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan