A very northern Northern Stage production

Many plays are mediocre because they use local references as a substitute for a story, but Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door is a shining example of how a “local” play can be done.

If you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to review Close the Coalhouse Door, it’s because the three-week run at Northern Stage had already sold out when I tried to get a ticket, leaving me to have to wait for its stop at Durham’s Gala Theatre on the following tour. Luckily I was early enough this time, because this too sold out. Mass popularity, one can assume, is a surefire sign that the play’s going to be good. Or is it? “Local” plays are an easy way of getting bums on seats. I know from painful experience that provided a play includes mentions the Angel of the North, getting cut off by the tide on Holy Island, and the Jarrow march (as opposed to a plot, characterisation or believability), it will probably be a box office smash. Could it be one of those?

Alan Plater’s play is primarily a potted history of the north-east miners from the birth of the union in the 19th century to the late 60s (the present day when the play was first performed). This is very much history as seen by the miners, so it should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s not a world seen through rose-tinted spectacles either. The play jumps back and forth between the past and present, and the present-day family and friends of Golden Wedding grandparents all have human flaws, including the apathetic revolutionary (with his song “As soon as the pub closes, the revolution starts”), and divided grandsons, one the first in the family at university, the other following in family footstep. The student’s sort-of-girlfriend, with her idealistic visions of feminism and working-class going hand-in-hand, gets a rude awakening of a village where women do as they’re told.

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Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback

COMMENT: Theatres have to reject most scripts that are sent to them – but they could at least say why.

Last week I did something I very rarely do – I submitted a script to another theatre. On a whim, I decided to enter New Writing North’s People’s Play competition (which is why I was late doing the Brighton Fringe roundup – I was working flat-out polishing up the script I wanted to send). Note my use of the words “rarely” and “on a whim”: I usually don’t bother with playwriting competitions at all. Same goes for most script calls and theatre reading departments. My reasons are many and varied, which you can read here, but the main one is that unless you are lucky enough to be picked – and let’s face it, the maths says it probably won’t be you – it’s a waste of time. If they don’t want your play, it gets binned without any explanation why.

Since I’m already biting the hand that might feed me, I will say this in defence of the People’s Theatre: they’ve got a good reputation for what they produce (and with me active in a fellow Little Theatre Guild venue I could do with building links), they don’t try to take ownership of your script, and they don’t charge submission fees. It’s the last one that I have big problems with, because I am very much opposed on principle to the idea of theatres making money from writers. A “reading fee” of around £30 is not uncommon for playwriting competitions, which, for all I know, could be little more than a glance of page one (and if you win the costs can be even more extortionate, but that’s another story). But even with a free competition with no strings attached, it takes time and money to get the play ready, print it, write the covering letter and post it. So usually I’m better off doing it myself.

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