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.