This true story could have benefited from filling a few gaps, but the excellent staging makes the play an interesting insight into a lesser-known flank of the miners’ campaign.
1993, eight years after the defeat in the miners’ strike. Pit closures are continuing, and Parkside Colliery is next on the list. What hasn’t been tried to stop the closures? Anne Scargill, then husband of the famous/infamous Arthur, brings three women along for an occupation. A futile stunt perhaps, in hindsight – after all, if one of the most widespread industrial disputes couldn’t stop pit closures, what chance would this have? – but a gesture that has still been remembered twenty-five years on. It is this piece of mining history that Maxine Peake chose to write about, originally written for radio, now adapted for the stage at the New Vic.
Four female teachers* turn up for an educational tour of a coal mine. Two notable things about the tour guide: firstly, he’s mildly annoying; and secondly – a perhaps more gallingly – he’s apparently indifferent to the pit’s imminent closure, a far cry from a decade earlier. Luckily for them, his disinterest in pit politics means he doesn’t recognise one of the women as Anne Scargill. If he had, he would probably have twigged that they weren’t really teachers and that they were up to something. Another miner does and keeps schtum, but comes to light later.
* Pedantic footnote: In the real story, they were part of a party of twelve. That’s a permissible liberty though.
One note of caution needs to be applied to this play, or indeed any play that tells somebody’s side of the story. They say that everybody has their own life story written in the head as a novel they are the hero; as such, stories such as these are liable to be told through filter. The play does not, thank goodness, portray the other side as one-dimensional cartoon villains – that would have helped no-one – but the character of the bullying colliery manager should be treated with healthy scepticism pending corroborating evidence. What this does give an interesting insight into, however, is part that Women Against Pit Closures played in the saga. Before the strikes, it was easier in mining communities to see a woman’s place in the home; during the strikes, they became an indispensable part of the operation, and they weren’t going back now. There’s also a side-plot of Michael, the aforementioned miner who turned a blind eye, and his experience as a mixed-raced miner in an overwhelmingly white community.
There is, however, one problem I found with the play’s believably – and I honestly don’t know the solution here. It was clearly a very organised operation to get into the mines, but once there, they didn’t seem to have any idea what to do – they didn’t even know there were toilet facilities until someone told them. To be fair, I understand that this is genuinely what happened: they genuinely (and, by their own admission, naively) thought that because their cause was right, they would win. But I picked that up from the programme, not the play. Somehow, that needed to come across in the script; that’s a tough challenge, and I don’t envy Maxine Peake for having that to solve.
The strength of this play, however, was the production values. Queens of the Coal Age was a radio play first – usually there’s a few giveaways when you adapt one for the stage. This, however, looks like it was written for the stage all along, and the lighting, sound and set created an excellent feel of a mine deep underground. The community ensemble added to the play was another great addition. Often these initiatives come across as bolt-ons to involve the community for the sake of it – this worked really well, with the miners past and present adding to the history of the mine. And a special mention must be given to director Bryony Sherman; apart from her part in creating the mine on stage, on the performance I saw she stepped in for once of the actors. I’ve seen people step in with script in hand before, but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly they can make you forget they’re reading off a script.
Queens of the Coal Age appears have been a big success locally, especially resonating with people who personally remember this era. To be remembered further afield, I wonder if the play needed to ask some deeper and less comfortable questions as to why this came about. But clearly the target audience are the people who relate to those days, and I can’t argue with that result. The run at the New Vic has now come and gone, but with so many former mining communities elsewhere, there’s plenty of other places this play could re-appear.