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.
I enjoyed the writing, even though it is a bloody complicated play to tell in two hours. Much of the present-day story is a love triangle between the girl and the two different brothers, but it wasn’t easy to keep track of this concurrently with all the back-stories. I’m tempted to suggested that this thread would have done better as a play in its own right, leaving this play to concentrate on the history of mining. But to give credit where it is due, whilst most writers attempting something this complex would end up with something pretentious and/or incomprehensible, Alan Plater succeeds in keeping the play tight and coherent.
This production has additional material by Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot, Pitmen Painters and Spoonface Steinberg fame), so that the play starts and ends in the present day. This means the play flashes back from 2012 to 1968 before flashing back further. That was a gamble – when a play is already complex, introducing further complications such as flashbacks within flashbacks is risky – but it works. He adds some simple but clever touches at the end, whilst the 1968 characters sing optimistic songs for the future to a background of the pits being dismantled, and finally, the cast all working in the new favourite north-east career of the call centre.
But as for the production – my God, what a performance. It is not unusual for casts in professional productions to sing or play instruments as well as act, but the variety of musical talent on display here was staggering. I lost count of the number of instruments each actor could play, the singing was flawless, without a single weak link in the acting. Okay, Northern Stage (this is strictly a co-production with Live Theatre but the creative style is very much Northern Stage’s) are thoroughly in their comfort zone of reviving successful contemporary plays, but when the acting and Samuel West’s directing is this good you can’t really complain.
It is fair to say that this play’s target audience is people who grew up in the mining communities; people who will identify with the characters, share the history. Whilst it may enjoy unrivalled box office success in Newcastle and Durham, I can’t imagine this having the same impact in Kent. But it is a refreshing change for a play to use its local roots to strengthen the story rather than compensate for the lack of one. Close the Coalhouse Door is a very popular local play, and for once, the popularity is well earned.
Close the Coalhouse Door concludes its tour at York Theatre Royal on the 26th-30th June.