Queens of the Coal Age Review | The Royal Exchange | Manchester
In a campaign to keep the Parkside Colliery pit, four members of the Women Against Pit Closures have side-lined their husbands, children and jobs to fight for their communities and futures.
Anne, Elaine, Dot and Lesley pose as teachers who wish to tour the mines but plan to protest the closure by staging a sit in. The Royal Exchange highlights the pits confined space, making room for a suspended cage that carries the women into the mine while lifting its floor to reveal its gravelly centre. Equipped with hard hats and flashlights, the show does its best to balance the humour and anger surrounding the closures, heard through the voices of the forgotten.
Originated as a radio play by Maxine Peake, the adaption to the stage downplays the action of the movement, opting to talk through all problems without offering any solutions. For mining villages, prospects appear to be bleak as no plan or investment have been implemented to offset the impact of an industry removed. Nevertheless, stories drift between the dispute of the coal war, humour in the mundane, personal relationships, lack of relationships and higher education. It becomes a waiting game where the strategy behind the provoked coal strikes aren’t clarified and the women begin to bicker among themselves.
The group includes a member labelled too highbrow for listening to Radio 4, a randy mixed raced character, a middle-aged white woman and a middle-aged white woman who still uses the term “coloured”. The point being, can’t we all just get along? Yet, with clashes that demonised while destroying working class communities, their stories fail to depict the real consequences behind pit closures.
The arguments against closures range from letting men be men, to women doing it for themselves, but primarily focuses on the struggle to survive after the pits have closed. It's 1993, only 31 pits remain and despite the relentless violence and poverty ravishing mining villages, the conversations between the women serve to highlight their differences. With a Us vs Them mentality that places many on shallow ground, it becomes frustrating to listen to serious issues being suspended for jokes.
When a young miner named Michael enters the space to deliver supplies, he shares his father’s experiences of the lack of support, security and diversity within his mining community. It is an experience that has sent him back to Jamaica, and a conversation ends there. Despite its diverse cast, the discussions surrounding cultural understanding and a legacy of loss aren’t spoken on in-dept.
Institutional racism and police brutality are intertwined as Anne explains to Michael that she used to believe there was “no smoke without fire” when black people were arrested without cause. However, after her arrests she realised the police could unjustly detain people. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough time to delve into casual racism further as the rest of the ladies have returned from the loo. Instead, Michael is asked about his future, one in which he’d love to become a DJ and is told he shouldn’t give up on his dreams.
Labelled weak for not fighting against his boss and the mine closure, Michael asks for the point of fighting a losing battle? It is a question that lingers throughout the production as the legacy left for its youth is never up for debate.
This production does highlight how the miner strikes fashioned fighter and artists out of housewives. Opening a new birth of leadership for working-class women not deemed politically charged or mentally capable. However, the humour here often buries the real acts of heroism that these women uncovered.