Last night, altBlackpool’s David Simper went to check out COAL, a production by Gary Clarke which was appearing for one night only at Blackpool Grand Theatre. Marking the 30th anniversary of the end of the 1984/85 British Miners’ strike, COAL is a riveting dance theatre show which takes a nostalgic look at the hard hitting realities of life at the coal face.
As I left the theatre I heard a lady say that she had never seen anything quite like this show and I would agree with that sentiment. Its impact is visceral and despite the inevitably sad ending, inspiring.
Starting with bird song and the straightforward yet exuberant lives of the mining communities, the piece takes the viewer through the gamut of work, play and finally industrial conflict, the latter finally destroying so much. Having lived in Wombwell, Barnsley, this piece feels personal despite never working in the mining industry itself; for Gary Clarke coming from Grimethorpe, it is deeply personal. He says, “It’s not really a political show, nor is it meant to be provocative. It’s deeply deeply personal, and I just wanted to share how it felt to live through those times. How it felt then, and how it feels now as the pain, loss and division linger on in our stranded communities.”
Despite this, the strike sequences and the use of Spitting Image’s Steve Nallon as Margaret Thatcher make the politics unavoidable. In dance and dialogue the piece reads as the systematic destruction of working class communities and the relationships within them.
At the show’s start the initial above ground camaraderie within families and between workmates had a feel good atmosphere, but this changed as the miners went down ‘the drop’ into the pit for their shift. A powerful soundscape and excellent subdued lighting created a claustrophobic and almost intimidating atmosphere. Merely with movement, the piece showcased the physicality, skill, teamwork and sheer danger of deep seam coal mining. This sequence was hypnotic.
Poison gas, one of mining’s particular historic problems, nearly claims one of the men. His workmates work together to save him in a sequence of genuine jeopardy, which at one stage seems to be mourning a death. It must be said that some knowledge of mining was useful in watching this show.
The soundscape shifted to using Beethoven’s 5th symphony somewhere around this point. I’m not sure why this inspiring piece of music worked in this context, but it did. The entire score knitted together to create an auditory journey. The audience was guided through a pounding industrial soundscape accompanied by radical folk songs and the excellent five piece brass ensemble courtesy of excellent Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band.
Finally free from the pit’s confines, dirt and danger, the miners and their wives repair to the working men’s club, a community hub for the ritualistic raffle, socialising and dancing. But now the threat of conflict emerges and communities descend into the hell of the miner’s strike. A back projected video showed images from this time. Using movement and soundscape the process of the miners being ground down is projected, culminating in a scab’s humiliation and a defiant throwing of boots at a contemptuous Mrs Thatcher’s feet. Community breakdown is symbolised through a brief hint of domestic violence, although this is reconciled swiftly.
COAL features selected spoken performances, particularly the excellent TC Howard in her monologue on the role of Women Against Pit Closures, including a reference to Barnsley Civic Theatre, which I remember well. Despite themes of male bonding and the loss of male employment, women play a strong role. Women’s persecution during the miner’s strike and their courage in the face of violence is highlighted. The monologue stresses that the communities knew that they were fighting for their lives. Congratulations to the four Blackpool community cast members who played their parts so well. Perhaps it was a little unfair to hiss Eleanor Perry as Mrs Thatcher when she took her curtain call, but feelings were running high and Eleanor had done a fine job of projecting the perceived evils of the former Tory Prime Minister.
I would struggle to find fault with COAL. The sequences continue for quite some time, but there is no movement wasted: they are compelling. Points are made subtly, like the effect on relationships as the scab’s wife rejects him, only for Thatcher to disdain him as merely a tool. Although we all know it’s going to be a sad ending, one is left wanting more. The curtain call applause was loud, long and very sincere.
The COAL tour continues in other locations across the country. If you missed it in Blackpool, check out the tour dates here.
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