King Coal nostalgia?

Review of the ‘Close the Coalhouse Door’, Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012.

Close the Coalhouse Door

Close The Coalhouse Door was a bit hit on its first outing in Newcastle in 1968. Written by Alan Plater, using stories by Sid Chaplin and with music by Alex Glasgow, it told in punchy dialogue and moving songs the story of ordinary local people, in this case the mining communities of the North East. Though there had been plays and films that touched on the same material, few were so political and hard-hitting. Perhaps only the 1940 movie The Stars Look Down, based on A. J. Cronin‘s novel of the same title (1935) and set in the pit village of ‘Tynecastle’, came close. Joan Littlewood had pioneered some of the techniques used by Plater and there is more than an element of music hall.

The play raised many political issues. Deep mines have of course, gone in the UK, though the scourge of opencast mining remains. But events such as the Durham Miners’ Gala live on. Their popularity would appear to reflect a certain misguided nostalgia for the old mining communities. Indeed there are some people who apparently want to reopen Britain’s coalmines. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for one has toyed with the idea. Close The Coalhouse Door also raises questions about the nature of community and solidarity therein.

Director Sam West’s revival was staged at the Northern Stage in Newcastle in Spring 2012. Local playwright Lee Hall basically added ‘bookends’ to update the story. Ironic reference is thus made to the fate of the communities Plater and Chaplin had brought to stage life in the original. Indeed there might have been many in the audience who had no idea what actual coal mines and mining communities were like such has been the obliteration of what used to be ‘King Coal’. The modern audience’s world is more likely to be one of office blocks, call centres, shopping malls and cul-de-sac housing estates.

But it is a story worth telling. Indeed it relates the rise of a force that could be said to have developed quite revolutionary power (it overthrew one government in effect) but which focussed on reforms. By means of flashbacks, the desperate need for such reform is made clear: grinding poverty, brutal working conditions, terrible accidents, swindles like company owned stores, the mass evictions from company housing. The first flashback tells how a union was first formed and, at various points, the play narrates other significant events in NE mining history. It is largely a story of big defeats and broken promises yet, over time, reforms were nonetheless won, thanks to collective action (as opposed to, say individual self-improvement or charitable measures from the powers-that-be).

These episodes are set in a narrative built around a wedding anniversary in the house of a retired pitman and his wife. There is also a grandson who works down the mine and his brother who has taken the escape route of university, a source of conflict between them. Other characters include the local vicar and an official from the mineworkers’ union. It is a situation that is easy to satirise, indeed brilliantly so by the ‘Monty Python’ team.[i]

Yet Plater and Glasgow managed to put together a story that is informative, moving, witty and, yes, inspiring. Lee Hall’s update does them proud, while actors and the production team carry off the whole show in a most lively fashion. The set alone deserves praise.

To his credit, Plater did not romanticise life in pit communities. Thus, in one flashback we encounter 60s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He is used as a platform for some frank observations about what was backbreaking work in filthy conditions. Adversity was, to a considerable extent, the mother of the much praised community spirit of pit villages and even then, as the dialogue spotlights at other moments in the narrative, solidarity was frequently absent. So the audience hears Wilson waxing lyrical about the ‘white heat’ of technology and economic modernisation. But, in actuality, no real alternatives were to be provided and, essentially, mining communities were just thrown on the scrap heap.

Lee Hall’s additions dramatically capture that fate. Rather than trying to bolt on whole new episodes, he opts for a much more imaginative device in which… but that would be giving too much away. Hall does indulge himself a little bit too much in his vision of how things might have been. So there is talk of new technology creating ‘clean coal’, in actuality a complete pie-in-the-sky fantasy.[ii] Yet the core points Hall forcefully makes about gross inequality and the utter disregard of our ruling classes for ordinary working people do spotlight the nature of contemporary society under both ‘New Labour’ and, at the time of seeing the play, the ‘ConDem’ coalition government.

To be honest, there have been some utterly tedious ‘agitprop’ productions but that is not the case here. The original play was a treasure and this update has given it a good polish. Outside the auditorium was an exhibition of Keith Pattison’s excellent ‘No Redemption’ photographs of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. They too are well worth seeing if you get the chance.

 

Sandy Irvine.

 

[i] (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPSzPGrazPo

[ii] For a critique, see http://neengland.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/northeastfiles/Newcastle%20NL%2012.pdf , pp6-8

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