“We went down fighting … And that matters.” (Elaine Evans, WAPC)
In October 1992, almost eight years after the defeat of the miners’ strike, the Government announced the closure of a further 31 pits. The future for these mining communities looked (and was) grim. But four members of Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) refused to lose hope and decided to stage a simple, but dramatic protest – an occupation of the Parkside Colliery. Five days later, after four nights in freezing temperatures, the women returned to the surface. They may have lost the political battle, but they won the respect of the entire community. Queens of the Coal Age tells the story of their experience 80 metres underground and the message conveyed loud and clear by its writer, Maxine Peake, is that the value of direct action doesn’t reside in winning but rather in the act itself.
Peake’s affection and admiration for the four woman is present in every line. The script oozes with the kind of irreverent, northern humour Victoria Wood made so familiar but also introduces insights into each woman’s distinctive character, particular struggle and motivation. As Peake says, these are ‘ordinary’ women doing something extraordinary. The dialogue reflects this: chatty, personal, warm, sharp and wonderfully barbed in places – indeed, during some of the exchanges with the patronising and bullying mining manager I’m almost tempted to stand up and cheer. The moments of political exposition feel more cumbersome, though these are important reminders that the event represented here was not all fun, games and banter.
Queens of the Coal Age began life as a 45-minute BBC radio play, aired in 2013. Extended here to over two hours, there is more room for the characters and their relationships to breathe – especially in the second half, as the focus shifts from the initial excitement of the occupying process to the boredom and tension of waiting and enduring. In a particularly delightful exchange, Michael (a young miner, played by Conor Glean) tries to explain to a middle-aged Anne Scargill (Kate Anthony) the niceties of different varieties of House music, and why his preference is for House Soul. It is simple, totally irrelevant but strangely touching (and very funny). Michael’s character – of mixed race origins – also enables Peake to explore the complexity of the movement’s relationship with racism, adding a new dimension to the main plot-line and qualifying the simplistic notion of a ‘noble working class’.
As a story of an event involving four women confined for five days in an enclosed space, this play runs the risk of feeling overly static. However, Bryony Shanahan’s direction manages to avoid this. Particularly effective is the use of an ensemble cast of miners, whose intermittent presence contextualises the action of the four women and considerably enhances the visual impact of the piece. The design is also terrific: the representation of the lift shaft by a moving metal grid ‘roof’; the deep, echoing, rumbling and crashing sound design; the eerie, dull lighting. Together, these create a tense and oppressive underground atmosphere which contrasts beautifully with the light-heartedness of the women’s banter.
Queens of the Coal Age is a thoroughly entertaining and accessible piece of drama. It is also a poignant tribute to four courageous women and a timely reminder of the importance of hope and activism. In the words of the leading protagonist, Anne Scargill; “Whenever you protest, you never fail. Because you’ve done it.”
Photograph by Keith Pattison