Queen Coal

Bryony Lavery
Sheffield Theatres
Crucible Studio

Kate Anthony as Maggie and Julia Ford as Justine Credit: Mark Douet

Bryony Lavery’s new play re-visits the events of the Miners’ Strike in the early 1980s from the perspective of Margaret Thatcher’s state funeral in 2013.

For a small family from a Yorkshire mining community, deeply involved in the events leading up to the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, this is a day of rejoicing. ‘Ding dong the witch is dead!’

Justine and her sister-in-law Maggie were ‘best friends’ during their overnight vigils on the picket line, united by their belief in the protest, their endurance of hardship and the strength of female solidarity. Justine’s ex-husband, Ian, was a miner, but is now employed at a Mining Heritage Museum.

Maggie, a forthright Yorkshire woman with a short fuse and a talent for expletives, has been estranged from Justine for over 30 years, but reluctantly contacts her to join them for a celebratory bonfire. The reunion is marred by long-held resentments which have gnawed away at the relationship.

Lavery’s short three-hander is interestingly structured. Memories of protest chants and songs and accounts of police action break through to the dramatic present. Short scenes, punctuated by sharp blackouts and metallic sound effects, provide snapshots of current and past events.

The three characters represent different perspectives on the strike: Ian (David Hounslow) lives in the past; Maggie (Kate Anthony) nurses her bitterness and sense of betrayal; Justine (Julia Ford) has moved on to become a professional protestor espousing any cause worth fighting for.

All three actors inhabit their roles with conviction, but in a sense they are playing Brechtian-style character types, representing political perspectives on the now-historical events.

Although each character’s back-story is provided, there is little opportunity in such a short play for depth of characterisation. But this is of secondary importance when it is the underlying issues that are being explored.

Max Jones’s set leads through darkened corridors, lined with coal, to a central chamber with a coal covered floor, which accommodates and dominates the domestic scenes and adapts, with effective lighting and sound, to represent a cage lift and the coal face.

Robert Shaw Cameron’s direction is accomplished and inventive. The use of mobile 'phones to provide sharply-focused lighting and two-way conversations is economical and effective; and the Margaret Thatcher ‘guy’ is a well realised, amusing and significant object.

In choosing to place the audience round the walls of the Crucible Studio, the usual intimacy of theatre-in-the round is compromised and because there is no sounding board except the outer walls, audibility is sometimes sacrificed, especially in scenes when shouting actors compete with recorded sound effects.

There is an exciting stage transformation towards the end of the play, which can be read realistically or as having metaphorical significance. The same could be said about Justine’s final action. She is adamant that it is her generation which must embrace and take responsibility for protest. Is this the way to do it?

Reviewer: Velda Harris