Writer: Chris Urch
Director: Paul Robinson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Six Welsh miners, trapped underground after an accident, listen for the sound of drilling and await their fate. Chris Urch’s first full-length play is set in May 1979, the month of Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory and, although it is not overtly political, it draws clear parallels between the plight of these men and a whole industry, together with the communities built around it, for which by then the death knell may already be tolling.
The dramatic structure is fairly familiar; a small group facing a common peril tears itself apart and pulls itself back together. If Urch does not completely avoid all the cliches, he creates well-rounded and believable characters and he manages to sustain the play’s grip on us through solid and varied writing. As the men stare death in the face, there is always time for dark humour and even a song or two. It is quite a treat hearing numbers normally associated with Julie Andrews or the Sex Pistols being sung (surprisingly well) in the style of a Welsh male voice choir.
Paternal figure to the group is Bomber (Clive Merrison), nearing retirement and hiding ill health, and the play begins with him dispensing fatherly advice to Mostyn (Joshua Price), a naive youth who is struggling to deal with his incarceration. Curly (Kyle Rees) and Chewy (Taylor Jay-Davies) are brothers, very different in character, the former tied to his community and the latter about to leave mining to start a life in London. Hovis (Paul Prescott) is a stoical former Polish soldier in World War II who has seen much worse before in his life. Individually and as an ensemble, the acting is very strong.
The “deputy” or leader of the six is Chopper (Patrick Brennan). For much of the time, he appears strong and silent but, as the days drag on without rescuers arriving, he is faced with a mutiny and Brennan delivers the production’s tour de force; raging as he is losing his power, standing almost naked in the face of adversity, he is King Lear in miniature.
Designed by Signe Beckmann and lit (sometimes unlit) by Hartley T A Kemp, the small set evokes perfectly the claustrophobic atmosphere of the underground cavern in which all of the action place. A less intentional contributor to giving the play the right feel is Theatre 503 itself, which is badly ventilated and lacking any form of air conditioning; as the audience leaves dripping in sweat, we have certainly shared in the experience of the characters in the play. If this production often makes us feel uncomfortable, it is both for the right and the wrong reasons.