Beth Steel
Nottingham Playhouse and Northern Stage
Northern Stage

The media would scarce think it worth a mention if a play about the city of London were written by someone whose dad had worked in a bank. But miners are different, so the fact Beth Steel, author of this play based round the '84 miners’ strike, is the daughter of a Nottingham miner has caused a good deal of interest. She’s also a female writing about a fiercely masculine world. Oh, yes, and there’s the fact that the cast of ten includes not a single woman.

This is a joint production between Northern Stage and Nottingham Playhouse. The latter premièred the play to great acclaim in Nottingham last year. In many ways, it’s an emotive partnership. Both the North East and Nottinghamshire were big mining areas but often poles apart in that bitter dispute, the former standing firm against the Thatcher government, the latter helping form a breakaway union. Few conflicts have so fiercely polarised the nation (though the having said which, there is a small matter right now…). To many, miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was a working-class hero, to others he was intransigent and stubborn, refusing his members the chance of a democratic national ballot.

It’s emotional for this reviewer too, born and brought up close to several pits in Nottingham (I played half-back for Gedling Colliery FC for two years) but long-term settled in the North East. I was especially keen to see how they handled the Nottingham accent, invariably inaccurate in film, TV and on stage. It’s not that well-known and difficult to get right. Film, stage or TV adaptations of the work of D H Lawrence, Allan Sillitoe et al usually play safe and settle for the accent’s more recognisable neighbour, Yorkshire.

In the main, they make a pretty good fist of it and how jolly for this Nottingham exile to hear again such words as ‘cob’ and ‘tuffee’.

But what’s the play like? Often good, visually terrific but with flaws. It’s built round two distinctive arenas; the first is the group of miners at the North Notts pit, Welbeck Colliery (usually seen working underground), the second is the politicians, the businessmen and wheeler-dealers manipulating the long dispute, often for political advantage. Ironically, it is those in full view to the world on the surface who are usually the more clandestine. Designer Morgan Large’s breathtaking multi-layered coal-face (which won a national award) manages to be simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic. Nerds such as myself will be intrigued to know this massive subterranean creation is constructed out of AluShape, the same stuff they use to make Santa’s Grotto—though here a little less cosy.

The besmirched miners are (rightly) dwarfed by these surrounding with scenes operating at various levels. Imposing though the setting is, we are easily transported downstage to the political scenes with a few deft touches from lighting designer Jack Knowles.

The play features such well-known figures as arch freemarket economist Milton Friedman and politician Lord Ridley (Geff Francis), fellow politician Peter Walker (Paul Kemp) and controversial NCB chief, the American Ian McGregor (Robin Bowerman), pouring scorn on what he sees as the UK’s Luddite tendencies (though ironically McGregor ultimately gets a slightly more favourable and compassionate portrayal than his normal demonic image). There’s a large part for playwright, banking heir and political fixer David Hart (Giles Taylor), portrayed as a calculating upper-class cad and Thatcherite weapon. I confess I was scarcely aware of Hart back in '84—though maybe that’s the point.

None of the above covers himself with glory and play forcibly reminds us just how bastardised and smooth-talking public office can be and the contempt in which we, poor old John Public are often held by those in power. The quick switching from this priviliged world to the sweated grime of the coal face, though maybe an obvious point, is one powerfully emphasised.

Strange then that the world of these arch capitalists is more strongly written than that of the miners themselves, albeit the latter’s world is graphically and powerfully evoked visually. Are locations too limited? Are they too much in love with the set? Miners’ wives were historically an essential part of this battle and yet we see no spouses nor the domestic conflicts back home where divided loyalties often reduced families to desperation. This limits the potential and the depth of the character portrayal. So we know what these miners represent. We don’t always know just who, in the bigger picture, they are.

Joshua Glenister, John Booker, Karl Haynes, Jack Quarton and Nicholas Shaw are the other subterraneans, though by far the best written miners’ part is William Travis as the deputy, a no-nonsense acerbic and biting wit, slowly revealing the deep affection for his men. I’m not sure you would call it a musical, though there are songs, mainly early on (assistant musical director Jack Quarton, original composition Jon Nichols). I think the piece would be better off without.

There is no Arthur Scargill, no Margaret Thatcher. Some powerful moments linger, such as the brief shower scene post-shift, quietly and effectively symbolising the men’s unity as they help cleanse one another, or the terrifying rattle of the descending cage.

Nottingham Playhouse artistic director Adam Penford directs this highly distinctive not easily forgotten production. Go see it, even though it never quite answers the question as to just whose story this is.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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