Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Bryony Shanahan
Reviewer: Andrea Allen
Queens of the Coal Age tells the remarkable tale of four women who responded to the threat of their local pit closure and therefore their local community, by going down the pit and occupying it. It’s 1993, and this is a true story. Anne, Lesley, Dot and Elaine aren’t to be messed with – it’s a shame that this show doesn’t do their story justice.
If you go and see it, take the first half with a pinch of salt. Writer Maxine Peake revisits her past with a script that descends directly into Dinnerladies territory. Whilst this wouldn’t be problematic in moderation, slapstick and crass, dated humour dominates without exception until the interval. Any nuance of character or moment for reflection is obliterated with tired, seemingly relentless references to bodily functions, fluids and innuendo. It’s straight out of a 70s sitcom, and it doesn’t work. It’s difficult to tell whether Maxine Peake’s script or Bryony Shanahan’s direction is more at fault. The script would benefit immensely from a dramaturgical eye, yet Shanahan runs away with the ‘carry on’ style atmosphere. Eve Robertson’s Elaine is caricatured almost to the extent of a Little Britain sketch, and Danielle Henry’s sex-crazed, karate chop wielding Lesley (“my sensei was Hong Kong Fooey”) doesn’t fall far behind.
Following the interval, this tone thankfully lifts. The ‘how’s your father’ comedy atmosphere softens as the characters articulate their concerns and anxieties through their dialogue rather than with slapstick gestures. It’s now that you warm to the characters, and the laughs and jokes, though less frequent, radiate the warmth, camaraderie and strength that their real-life counterparts no doubt embody to their core.
A confusing addition is the chorus composed of contemporary miners kitted out in hi-vis and head lamps and their 19thcentury counterparts with hand-held lamps and soiled non-descript clothing. It’s unclear what the latter represent, perhaps the long history and legacy of the mining community? The deep roots that were lost with the closures of the pits? In any case, the ‘ghost miners’ feel a bit heavy-handed, and as such add no more than a cloud of confusion in a piece already blighted by an infuriating lack of subtlety – cue an imagined ‘pill and fag’ rave to disco lights and house music.
In a society eclipsed by uncertainty and austerity, the message to stand up for your beliefs, even when defeat may seem inevitable, couldn’t be more important. With such an inspiring message and real-life inspiration at its heart, it’s all the more disappointing that Queens of the Coal Agemisses the mark quite so catastrophically.
Runs until 28 July 2018 | Image: Keith Patterson